We watched LEAVING PLANET EARTH at the Edinburgh International Festival

9 Sep

Paul F. Cockburn joined a theatre audience literally transported to another place.

The Edinburgh International Festival remains the “official” Edinburgh Festival, the Establishment against which everything else happening in the Scottish capital during August (and beyond) somehow kicks. Including, most obviously, the behemoth that is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which has long since overshadowed the EIF in scale. Co-ordinated, themed and commissioned years in advance, EIF retains a sense of being about “proper” (ie classical) music, opera and theatre. It’s surely a sign of the times that 2013 saw the EIF curate what was undoubtedly a work of science fiction.

In part, this was an offshoot of one of the 2012 EIF’s main themes: technology. Leaving Planet Earth is the extrapolation of our technological ability to move beyond our home world; and to play with the all the social, political and informatic consequences of a human mass-migration to the stars.

Devised by Catrin Evans and Lewis Hetherington in conjunction with Scottish theatre company Grid Iron, Leaving Planet Earth was a piece of site-specific theatre whose action took place a coach-ride away at the Edinburgh International Climbing Centre (EICC), some ten miles to the west of the capital.

The audience were cast as the supposed final group of humans making the “jump” to New Earth; and the drama, played out on the coach and within various parts of the EICC, unfolded as fragments of a “personal acclimatisation programme”.

Not everything is going to plan with this colonisation. From the start, there is a great emphasis on “the Pull”, a psychological condition like extreme home-sickness which eventually leaves those affected little more than lifeless husks. For “the good of the community”, and indeed humanity’s future expansion into the stars, everyone submits to constant psychological screening to keep the Pull at bay, on the understanding that those who succumb will be humanely killed.

However, the inspirational leader of the colonisation of New Earth, Vela, knows that something more is needed; that, to deal with the Pull once and for all, New Earth must cut its ties with the Old. Only a few know what this will actually involve: the deliberate destruction of old planet and the many thousands who chose to remain there.

Chillingly, for some of the characters, this isn’t their most important concern. Vela herself is beginning to show signs of the Pull, spending more time than her colleagues think wise in the facility’s Old Earth Museum. If she succumbs, what will it mean for the future of humanity as a whole?

There was much to enjoy in this production, not least the challenge of working out the alternative twentieth-century timeline in which a Third World War wiped out large parts of the population, yet also enabled the development of “Jump” technology in the 1970s and the discovery of New Earth in 2005. But it was sometimes difficult to latch on to the human story.

The EIFF is an effective setting: it’s not every day you find yourself in an old roofed-over quarry. Its confusing mixture of inside and outside was exploited and explored by Paul Claydon’s lighting and Philip Pinsky’s soundscapes. And when the climax arrived – the symbolic cutting of all ties with Old Earth – we did feel a real sense of abandonment.


Also on the blog: Nick Harkaway explores Hari Kunzru’s Memory Palace

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