The Light Box – Natalia Savvides and James Dalton balance us on the thin line between the real and the unreal. (theatre review)

A complex relationship exists between the real and the imagined that has been the fascination of artists and philosophers since humans began to organize thinking. This relationship is complicated primarily because of the difference between the two, the intensity of the two and the difficulty to discern which is which.

It is this idea, through the lens of the experience of women in colonial asylums, Natalia Savvides explores in The Lightbox. A delicious precipice exists that tempts us often, to dip into the behaviors we resist through our conscious acceptance of that which tells us what is deemed normal. A good example of what I mean here, is the person whose fear of heights comes from the intense desire they have to throw themselves off the top of a tall building when they are there. There is something fascinating about these sudden urges that for the most part we are able to successfully resist. In our asylum in The Lightbox, perpetrator Ethel (Hannah Barlow) has plunged a spoon into the palm of a woman she meets in a cafe. This behavior is considered to be anti-social, and Ethel is condemned to an asylum for her behavior. And yet, two anomalies rise from this situation. How we sympathize with Ethel – how often has the temptation to hurt someone else physically risen up inside of us? And the other is the remarkable transformation it caused in Annie (Stephanie King) who finds herself as transformed by the spoon as by the act itself. Samuel Beckett liked to remind us the madman had something important to tell us, and here Natalia Savvides is able to move us into the vision of the “mad woman” (asking us all the time, of course, is she really mad) and circle the play around her vision without affecting the narrative.


In this way, it occurs as perfectly reasonable that the doctor in the asylum is a man covered in spoons, and a woman’s lover is a toucan. As the story weaves its way through multiple narrative streams, all a variety on the idea of an individual struggling to recognize its place in an ocean of objects, we are encouraged to release the structure that establishes “theatre experience”, resist interpretation, and allow the theatrical moment to move us in whatever direction happens.  This is a concept tried many times, and not always successfully, but with Natalia Savvides words and concepts and James Dalton’s creative directing, The Lightbox becomes one of the plays that achieves this. Remarkably for such lofty ambitions, the play lacks the pretension that might hamper its free expression, and retains a close respectful tie with the audience. In a way, the play becomes a dream, or the depiction of a dream, where anything could happen and yet the significance of each small act is amplified through the opportunity to create multiple interpretations. The play doesn’t “mean” any one thing – and at the same time it means everything, making allowance for the place where audience and interpretation collide, and in fact encouraging that place without fear.


I read in the program writers notes, that the play was first written and then grown through two developments led by James Dalton to become the witness ready event. The way Natalia Savvides describes this, it sounded like a thrilling and innovative creative experience as the bones of the play meshed through a kind of translative process. I can only assume this has added some of the “magic” I describe in the previous chapter, because despite the plays expansive reach it never loses intimacy nor the courage of its connection to the witness as collaborator in bringing to life the final event. In this way, the execution, if not the plays narrative, reminded me of the plans of the surrealists – although this is not a surrealist play (and I suspect the creators would not appreciate the connection) my experience of watching The Lightbox was similar to my experience of reading Andre Breton or Comte de Lautreamont. Dwelling in the thin wobbly line between what we have decided is “the Real” and what we have decided is “the Imagined”.


Constantly on the stage are the four actors, Hannah Barlow, Stephanie King, Tom Christopherson and Dean Mason. Tom Christophersen is a tall streak of a presence that reminded me of the reach for heaven and the inevitable sink into hell, as he seems to be equally capable of portraying both journeys. Dean Mason is a thing to hold, a tangible existence that imparts words of wisdom with the same gravity and strength that he spins lies and weaves routes of escape. Stephanie King is both the frantic fear and the placid self-examination of self, the ocean tide between two shores and in amidst it all sits Hannah Barlow, the apex from which all experience, and interpretations of experience tumbles. Each character brings a measure of the experience of the witness to their role, so that at different points throughout the play, the audience can see themselves mirrored in every part.


Fat Boy Dancing and We Do Not Unhappen are the production companies behind The Light Box, carefully selecting the remarkable Dylan Tonkin for the set, Benjamin Brockman doing very interesting things with lights and all of it wrapped up in the surreal sounds of Nate Edmondson. Unfortunately, my review has come out at a time when the plan is no longer showing, but connecting with Fat Boy Dancing and We Do Not Unhappen will keep you in touch with these talented individuals and all their future productions, which may include another show of The Lightbox at a later date.