Lightwork: Image Performance

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a really intelligent piece of theatre... a brilliant, fizzing eveningThe Guardian


Combining Victorian illusionism and multimedia staging, Blavatsky dealt with the nature of belief and the susceptibility of seekers. It explored the moment when performance becomes deception. It bordered on the truth.

The project took as its starting point the life and practices of Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, who was the first person to bring Eastern spirituality into mainstream European culture. Some see her as a pioneer of the New Age movement. The Society for Psychical Research investigated her in 1885 and declared her a fake, alleging that she used theatrical effects to achieve her visions.

The production addressed the Blavatsky phenomenon in relation to contemporary constructions of spirituality, ideologies of the self and notions of the instability of bodies and personae. It explored distinctions between substantial and insubstantial bodies, and dynamics of presence and absence, using formal procedures appropriate to particular cultural moments: the late-Victorian era (the period of Mme Blavatsky's preeminence) and the present.

It therefore developed two sorts of interface:

  1. between the technologies of the theatre of the nineteenth-century theatre (sliding doors, mirrors, smoke, magic lanterns — the devices that Mme Blavatsky's detractors claimed she used) and those of contemporary media.
  2. between live performance (immediate, substantial, three-dimensional and figural) and the projected/screened image (mediated, insubstantial, two-dimensional and flat).

The project entailed a two-week workshop/development phase at the Jerwood Space, London, involving director, writer, performers, and technical team to research the relevant technologies and develop appropriate material. The show was given a three-week run at the Young Vic Studio, London.

Madame Blavatsky's story lends itself to innovative interpretation in performance. Regardless of the sincerity of her mission, the method Blavatsky herself chose to propagate it was wholly theatrical. She was, apart from anything else, a natural show-woman. Her very theatricality provides the basis of a show which moves beyond theatre both in terms of process and presentation.

We took Blavatsky's story as a basis for performance-exploration in a similar way to our methodology for The Shift (presented by Lightwork's precursor company, Academy Productions) Working with the performers and production team we developed the production through a devising process that resulted in three strands:

  1. A story, set largely in late-Victorian England, featuring celebrated incidents from the life of Madame Blavatsky.
  2. A contemporary story about a New Age couple searching for their inner selves.
  3. Appearances by a magician, who performed tricks for the audience.

The final outcome, then, was not be a straightforward 'biopic' but a synthesis between the circumstances of Blavatsky's life, the ideas she propagated and their resonance today. Our exploration of late-nineteenth-century mysticism and latter-day spiritualism was played out through the devices of the late-Victorian stage (mirrors, magic lanterns, screens and sliding panels) and the technologies of contemporary performance (video, slide projection and hologram). The central issue of taking on different identities — whether for spiritual or for worldly reasons — lay at the heart of the project.