Traverse 5: Medical Faculty, University of Edinburgh / Dr Roberts' Magic Bus, Edinburgh / Lamb's House, Leith
August, 2006
** / *** / ****

Technology gets everywhere. Blogging seems to have overtaken freesheet paper publications in power as regards Fringe reviews and recommendations, and several shows are based on blogs; most newspapers this year (including this one) offer Edinburgh podcasts; and now the iPod culture of aural self-sufficiency filters through in a clutch of dramatic offerings delivered via headphones.

Dr Ledbetter's Experiment is the closest to conventional drama, and I think coincidentally the most disappointing. Through various darkened, imposing chambers in the University's Victorian medical faculty, the story is told of a fictional 19th-century doctor's hideous experiments in immortality. The acting, though, is excessively melodramatic, so that one keeps expecting grand Guignol touches which never arrive. Moreover, in such confined spaces there is simply no need to listen to the actors via headphones; the extra aural dimension supplied thereby consists simply of atmospheric sound effects and the occasional line of interior monologue.

Up-and-coming Scottish theatrical maverick David Leddy is currently engaged on an "Auricula series" of headphone-based works. Last month his Sussurus sent visitors wandering around Glasgow's Botanic Gardens with a dramatic soundscape on an mp3 player. Reekie is similar: off one goes, equipped with player but unaccompanied, on a mapped route through central Edinburgh. In effect, this is simply a sound play with visuals supplied by the listener as one walks around; there is little or no explicit linkage. The play – about loss and disaapointment, basically, though also containing sidelights about everything from Rosa Parks' bus protest to the Fringe itself – is moderately interesting, but greater integration with the walk would have improved things disproportionately.

This is the case with Ghost. Headphones on, one embarks on a solitary wander around generally unprepossessing backstreets of Leith, following a "thread" of red paint on the pavement and pausing at particular points to listen to segments of Judith Adams' haunting near-monologue about a supernatural artist and craftsman whose talents are no substitute for fulfilment in his personal life. Footsteps or children's laughter appear to sound behind one; at one point, gazing around a shopping precinct, a sudden moment of perfect beauty emerges, followed by one of paranoia as the headphones claim that unknowing passers-by are in fact mere people-shaped simulacra. There is enough fascination in the aural component, and just enough design in the route and visuals, to make this a genuinely haunting experience.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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