The smell produced when rain falls on dry ground, usually experienced as being pleasant, is the definition given to the word petrichor by the Cambridge Dictionary. Petrichor, a ThickSkin Theatre production that is part of the Living Record’s assortment of online shows this Brighton Fringe, is a physical theatre VR experience. Like its namesake definition, Petrichor oscillates between the dry drudgery of a dystopian reality, and the pleasant freshness of human connection.
Their movements are kinetic and explosive
At first I was concerned that perhaps the typographic imagery intermingled with animated white noise effects would be too suggestive of an Alton Towers pre-ride experience to be effective. However, once combined with the physical movement of our two protagonists, these fears were unfounded.
Dominic Coffey and Ayesha Fazal were excellent as our two unnamed protagonists. Following the direction and choreography of Jonnie Riordan and Jess Williams, the performers hang their bodies in the space like abandoned puppets, shoulders shrugged over and spines curved as if permanently hunched over an invisible desk. Other times they contort backwards in smooth Matrix-esque fashion, seemingly seceding control of their bodies to some higher power. When not weighed down by their dystopian existence, their movements are kinetic and explosive, representing a dynamic connection between the two.
Taking the opportunities provided by the medium further, the physical performance is often echoed by digital duplicates, or the performers may suddenly disappear or reappear with props and staging. As you move around the space, you're never quite sure what you'll see. This technique is used sparingly enough to be disorientating without losing the sense of narrative.
Some of the spoken elements felt reminiscent of Kate Bush’s Waking of the Witch, as an otherworldly voice (Danielle Henry) interrupts, soft in contrast to the mechanical demands otherwise spoken throughout, attempted to get through to our two protagonists.
Unfortunately, I struggled to get the VR set up to work well for me. Not being a VR aficionado, I could only try with an old Google Cardboard device I had kicking around. Whether it was this basic tech, or generally the difficulty I often find with VR sets as a full time spectacles wearer that was root of the problem, I’m not sure. I struggled through around seven minutes before giving up with the slightly blurry double vision and opting to watch on my laptop instead. This was a worthy enough swap, as you are still able to scroll through the video’s 360 degree layout this way, but it did lose an aspect of the immersive experience. ThickSkin Theatre plan to tour with production, particularly without colleges, and it would make an excellent addition to a VR festival schedule or programme, such as The Old Market's #TOMtech.
Overall, ThickSkin Theatre have taken the essence of a very physical production and transformed it into the digital stage for Petrichor. An interesting work that ends on a refreshing and impactful high, it's exciting to see where they take these hybrid, digitally conceived performances next.