The two sides of Darkfield: writer Glen Neath and director David Rosenberg | Sun Lee
Glen Neath and David Rosenberg produce pitch-black theatre. Their company, Darkfield, develops plays that take place in rooms so devoid of light you cannot see your hand in front of your face. The only clues about your surroundings come through sound: every audience member wears a pair of headphones playing audio recorded to create an uncanny impression of space and movement.
"You hear a footstep and think, 'Is everyone sitting down in their chairs? Have people got up?'" says Rosenberg, who directs. "It's a very intense feeling," adds writer Neath.
Neath, 51, and Rosenberg, 48, first worked together on Shunt, the experimental theatre company Rosenberg co-founded in 1998. Shunt pioneered what came to be known as immersive theatre – but by 2010, thanks to the popularity of companies such as Punchdrunk, the form felt tired. "There was a time when it was more exciting," says Rosenberg. "It seems at the moment as if we're on a bit of a plateau."
Wanting to engage with audiences more directly, the pair started investigating binaural sound, a spatial audio technology recorded using imitation ear canals placed on either side of head-shaped busts. Whereas surround sound can fill a room, binaural sound only works on headphones. But its immediacy and intimacy creates an uncanny effect.
In Ring, Neath and Rosenberg's first play, performed in 2012, the entering audience were faced with two banks of seats. The lights went out and a loud voice said: "Everybody move their chairs into a circle." Were you meant to move? Without light, how was that even possible? Just as doubt set in - scraping noises suggested other people were shifting their chairs - the voice whispered in your ear: "But you can stay where you are." The pair had invented a new form: direct address, delivered individually to every member of the audience. "You could be totally intimate with somebody," says Neath.
Ring was followed in 2015 by Fiction, an Inception-like adventure guided by a personal chaperone. When I saw the show in Edinburgh I was entranced. Walking into the show, you were given a seat number, so that you wouldn't sit next to people you knew. You turned off your phone and removed everything that might create light. The room was so dark you couldn't be sure whether your eyes were open or closed.
Then a soft, French, female voice said, "Hello," in your left ear, sounding as if she was directly behind you. I jumped; judging from the noise I wasn't only one. But once you'd got used to it, the sense of presence was incredibly effective: more so in many ways than in most virtual reality experiences. "We took a long time to come to the conclusion that we didn't want to show the technology," says Neath. "With virtual reality, you've got this headset on so you know you're in this virtual world. Whereas with ours, we're playing with the idea that we don't know what's real and what's not."
Reviewers praised Ring and Fiction for their use of technology. But with both shows nudging the hour mark, audiences found it hard to commit so much time in the dark. So now Neath and Rosenberg are creating shorter productions, set inside a shipping container. "It's a bit like a sideshow fairground ride," Rosenberg says. "Bypassers get in a queue, there's a low ticket price and it's a short and intense experience."
The first, Séance, which shows in Edinburgh this month, seats its audience around a table: the lights go off, and you hear a man enter the room. Is he really there? Can he conjure a spirit? Neath isn't telling. "Séances are just like Victorian parlour games," he grins. "We're doing that, but with different technology."