This is a story about the end of the world. It begins and ends the same way… With a breath. At least as an audience we get the Heads Up.
Kieran Hurley sits down, lights a candle and mixes the first of many background pieces from an on-stage sound desk. He erupts straight into his story. A city worker notices fluctuations in the stock market and sees the end of the world coming. A pre-teenage girl is the subject of sexting and revenge porn. A rock star, brain addled with cocaine, worries about the impending extinction of the bees and the imminent birth of his first child. A customer service worker recites positive mantras while on probation to avoid being fired. We sit, we watch, we feel the pressure.
The intensity builds. Each sound is manually operated and takes on an electronic urgency at every turn. A high-pitched whine builds slowly and pervades the smoke-filled theatre. A flash of light, the glare from two headlamps throws us off kilter, blinding us. Michael John McCarthy’s compositions slowly rise in pitch – we all feel the tension, it creeps up our bodies and resonates in our minds.
Hurley skips between characters and is increasingly agitated. His face contorts – sharp and screwed and severe in demeanour, his characters instantly defined by the subtle variation found in his eyes and the inflection of his speech. He is frantic, he is nervous, he is building towards something. Suddenly he stands, a prophet preaching apocalyptic destruction. It feels spiritual, he looks transcendent in the harsh spotlight glow shining down on him from on high. The contrast of light and shadow adds an otherworldly quality to the production.
We are all of them. We are none of them. We are people, existing and making sense of our pointless lives. But we are more than that too. We are more than the story we have told ourselves. We watch and egg on the characters, we want their journeys to end and the world to reach its impending conclusion. We fear it, but we revel in its finality. Knowing that nothingness is bearing down upon us gives unlikely comfort – complete destruction is easier than the continuation of our monotonous, grinding existence.
As it comes, we take note of those final positive moments, the small touches that colour humanity with fleeting happy memories. Hurley sits back, resigned to his fate. The world will end as his story must end and he has now given us the Heads Up. This space; this production; this connection between Hurley and the audience stops. He blows out the candle and we sit in the darkness, contemplating nothing, blackness washing over us. The house lights come on and, as one, we all exhale. Without even realising it, we were holding our breath and bracing ourselves for the crushing nothing to consume us. We are reminded that it all begins and ends in this exact same way.
Heads Up is currently playing Battersea Arts Centre and booking until 1 April 2017. For more information and to book tickets, see the website.