Welcome to Akiyama, Cooper Art Studio’s (a not-for-profit organisation) dystopian corporation in the heart of Durham. This is a world of desolate parking lots, sexy costumes, and violence. Akiyama bio-engineers ‘synthetics’- living beings which resemble humans- but a rogue group of them led by the sinister Saul (Rory Barnes) begin to wreak havoc. It is up to Lyial (Michael Yates) to hunt them down.
If this sounds familiar then it’s because the plot is heavily influenced by a number of Dystopian films including Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? While the material may be unoriginal, this does not detract from the originality of the experience. The artistic director Christian Ellinas brings to his work a precise eye for detail and the set, lighting, music, and costumes are stunning. In this way, it sits somewhere between art and drama and functions almost as much as a series of art installations than as a piece of promenade theatre.
The night starts with a real sense of anticipation as the event information states that we are to be taken to three Durham locations ‘you don’t know exist’. The umbrella-wielding Gem (Georgia Small) approaches us huddling on Framwellgate Bridge and coldly commands us to follow. The audience is fully immersed in the drama from the onset: we are inspected and handed chemical protection style nose-and-mouth masks before being marshalled from scene to scene in a vaguely aggressive way. The masks are an effective way of preventing audience members from chatting to one another between scenes, which could detract from the tension.
A loading bay and recycling plant prove ideal locations for the first few scenes as we are introduced to Chief-of-Police (Ollie Wright) and his reluctant cop, Lyial (Michael Yates). Wright and Yates deliver controlled and understated performances and the naturalism of the whole cast give the world of ‘Dystopia’ a sense of reality.
The Interviewer (David Myers) isn’t around long before being shot and killed. Using a machine to try and detect whether synthetics are capable of emotion, the Interviewer tests Saul in a scene of growing tension. Everything is spot-on including the beautifully crafted machine which even opens up and compresses to resemble breathing. Rory Barnes as Saul is very well cast; his imposing height and piercing eyes embody the menace of his character.
We are then transported to Empty Shop where we meet the subtly camp Mr Akiyama (Dominic McGovern), his sultry niece Anna (Corinna Harrison), and some more badass ‘synthetics’. One of the tensest scenes of the piece occurs in the toy room. Blue-ish lighting, creepy broken dolls, and long pauses amount to a ridiculously eerie atmosphere.
‘Dystopia’s violence is realistically portrayed, with perfectly-timed blood pellet explosions and film set effects. In many ways it feels like walking through the cinema screen and watching a film unfold within touching distance. It’s a shame that the interval has to last so long as this disrupts the tension somewhat. The final scene occurs in a rather crowded Empty Shop and the action is sometimes hard to see depending on where you are sat. Nevertheless, the cast are incredibly professional and the piece finishes on a high.
Producers Matilda Hunter and Phea Eades-Jones have pulled off an ambitious and unusual production and must be praised for what was a very slick affair. Cooper Art Studios have brought something new to the Durham drama scene and I am excited to see what Christian Ellinas will create next.
Image: Christian Cooper Ellinas