Over the past year we’ve become used to a variety of home theatre: recordings of live performances, streamed shows, online films. But I haven’t really explored much sonic theatre, those plays without pictures. Making up for lost time, in the past week I’ve listened to Mark Ravenhill’s audio play, Angela, and now I’ve had a really immersive experience with Bernadett Szabo’s Mum. Can You Hear Me? Beginning with news bulletins that remind us that this dark story is based on the Essex lorry deaths when 39 Vietnamese people were found in a refrigerated truck in Grays in 2019, the piece is a sensitive and emotionally profound exploration of hope and hopelessness. The narrator travels in this ghastly darkness, aware of the other migrants but concentrating on talking to her mother, whose distant voice has a ghostly quality. Szabo’s 37-minute audio drama is brilliantly written, with a distinctive stop-start phrasing that evokes her main character’s uncertain place between continents, between family and strangers, between life and death. The sparse quality of the text, with its simple, repeated flinty phrases, suggests the emptiness around the trapped migrants, whose world has contracted savagely into one cold container. And the intense feelings of love and longing, for family, for a new life, for a chance to change, come across in a fraught and fractured way. Past happiness is briefly remembered. Dreams drift through her mind. As the end approaches, there’s a Beckettian sense of talking into the void. The subject matter works wonderfully well in the sonic format, with no distracting pictures, just voices in the darkness. The directing, by Adam Cachia, for Peripeteia Theatre Company at the Living Record Festival a couple of months ago, is excellent, as are the performances by Alex Douglas as the narrator and Alecia Maddox as her mother, while Áron Gyenge’s soundscape is a character in its own right. There is no attempt at documentary—this is an imaginative evocation of the irrepressible human spirit in the teeth of despair and desperation. Superb.
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