Performance review: Darkness, The Library Newtown

An immersive site-responsive Gothic work that's ambitious and evocative.

Just over 200 years ago, on a dark and stormy night, a group of pleasure-seeking intellectuals gathered at a lakeside mansion in Geneva. In the darkness were poet Lord Byron and Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley). The meeting took place during ‘The Year Without a Summer,’ which was, unknown to the group, a global climate catastrophe initiated by a volcano on the other side of the world, causing the Earth’s temperature to plummet and inducing widespread crop failure across Europe.

Fast forward to 2023, and Andrew Bovell, Zoey Dawson, Dino Dimitriadis, Dan Giovannoni and Megan Wilding have brought this historic event into the present (or the not-too-distant-future). Darkness is an opulent, immersive Gothic landscape of yearning, passion and terror.

It’s a dystopian but not unfathomable depiction of social and environmental crisis, where a group of friends and lovers come together to contemplate an unknown future. In a plan formulated by Byron (played by Alec Snow) – perhaps in response to the realisation this could be the end times – the friends are propositioned to tell the best scary story they can muster.

In between the fantastical tales, which are performed hypnotically, the characters explore their relationships with themselves and each other, and try to make sense of their lives amid the chaos and uncertainty. Imogen Sage gives a standout performance as Claire, Mary Godwin’s step-sister.

With their self-described site-responsive work, the creators have adapted the performance to fit the place, The Library – a historic Newtown building the use of which has transformed many times over more than 100 years.

The performance takes full advantage of the building’s Gothic interior. The multisensory experience begins as soon as the audience enters through the giant heavy doors. Glass cabinets display cattle skulls and china tea sets. There are plenty of books, of course. Hosts and bar staff are dressed in black and wear collars. Even the bathrooms are lavishly decorated. The ‘stage’ is not a confined space.

The actors spread themselves out to fill every corner of the grand room. They wander the aisles between red velvet bench seats, plonk themselves among the audience, at times speaking directly into an audience member’s face. This creates an intimacy and draws the audience into the characters’ world.

In contrast, when they stand up on the highest point of the room, backgrounded by opulent arched windows with filtered moonlight, it’s as if they’re giving a sermon or a lecture. The immersive participatory nature brings together the elements of the show in a powerfully effective manner. At times the combinations of ominous sounds, dark lighting and supernatural storytelling caused this reviewer to feel afraid.

The soundscape shifts from dark techno to pulsing reverberations and startling thunderclaps. The eerie mood is maintained through minimal lighting and smoke effects. Its relevance to our times is produced through references to environmental collapse, big surveillance and drug-fuelled dance parties.

There are also the timeless themes of the intricate complexities of human relationships, desires and fears as explored through the characters. They share histories and broken hearts, and anxieties that are amplified by the looming thoughts of the end of humanity.

Read: Performance review: Bikutsi 3000, Perth Festival

Some of the dialogue and acting is a little off between the telling of stories, which, in contrast, are highly emotive and engaging. Yet Darkness is still a rich and moving full body experience. ​

Darkness, by Andrew Bovell, Zoey Dawson, Dino Dimitriadis, Dan Giovannoni and Megan Wilding
The Library Newtown
Tickets: from $69

Dramaturg: Andrew Bovell
Writers: Zoey Dawson, Dan Giovannoni, Megan Wilding
Director: Dino Dimitriadis
Set and costume designer: Isabel Hudson
Lighting designer: Benjamin Brockman
Sound designer: Danni A Esposito
Associate designer: Cris Baldwin
Associate lighting designer: Ryan McDonald
Intimacy consultant: Shondelle Pratt

Cast: Caroline L George, Jerome Meyer, Imogen Sage, Alec Snow, Zoran Jevtic, Drew Wilson

Darkness will be performed until 25 February 2023.

Sarah Liversidge is a journalist and writer from Melbourne with various obsessions including politics, social issues and art in all its forms. She is currently completing a journalism degree at RMIT university where she is an editor at the student run publication, The Swanston Gazette.