Darkside on BBC Radio 2
BBC Radio 2, 26 August 2013
Produced to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the release of the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon, Dark Side was greeted with blank incomprehension by Gillian Reynolds of The Daily Telegraph. While drawing attention - predictably - to Stoppard's witty use of language, as well as his combination of humour and serious philosophical themes, she nonetheless admitted that she had no idea what the play was about, and concluded that it was simply "pretentious." You can read her review at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10269343/Darkside-Tom-Stoppards-play-was-as-pretentious-as-Pink-Floyds-music-review.html.
Where Reynolds made her mistake was in assuming that a play has to be about "something." Darkside asked us to reflect on whether that "something" existed, and if so, why should individuals want to pursue it?
Its structure was strongly reminiscent of Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, with a young girl Emily (Amaka Okafor) taking a journey (whether it was physical, psychological or emotional did not really matter) and encountering a rogues' gallery of personalities including Mr. Baggott (Rufus Sewell), Dr. Antrobus (Bill Nighy) and the Fat Man (Adrian Scarborough).
She became involved in a trial scene which, although not ending with the phrase "off with his head!" struck me as very reminiscent of Carroll's work, while offering the opportunity for Stoppard to use wordplay based around "which" and "witch." In this sequence in particular, we were asked to focus on the relationship between word and object (in Saussurean teams, signifier and signified), and how that relationship is often arbitrary. What happens when that relationship is disturbed, and one word can be taken to mean anything? What consequences does this process have for human beings brought up to believe in "reason" and "stability"? Dark Side offered no answers, but showed instead how Emily learned to adapt herself to a world in perpetual flux. Like the juggler (a metaphor that cropped up throughout the production), she learned to balance a series of intellectual balls at the same time.
To understand the relationship of Darkside to its source, we have to consider how and why the Pink Floyd album was conceived. Each track reflects a different aspect of human life , while reflecting on the diverse nature of experience. The album explores how time and space can control an individual's lives, rendering them powerless until death. The world is in flux; the only certainty is death. As a result, many people experience considerable loneliness and isolation, as they are unable to adapt to that way of life. The album ends optimistically with a call for unity, based on the belief that all human beings share the same fate.
Darkside deliberately frustrated our expectations (that a play must have a coherent beginning, middle and end) to make a similar point. Life cannot be so easily categorized, so why should a play not follow a similar path? The only way Emily could negotiate her way through the Darkside was to learn how to adapt to it. Once we, as listeners, understood what she was doing, then we might learn how we are undergoing similar experiences in our daily lives.
With a complex soundscape combining sound effects, vocal contrasts and extracts from the Pink Floyd album forming a background to the action, Darkside was a brilliantly complex piece - one of the best things I've heard this year.