3 Min Read

“Regardless of where you look, it’s compelling”: While You Sleep 

According to the Oxford dictionary the word ‘Fugue’ has two meanings:

1: A contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts.

 2: A loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment, associated with certain forms of hysteria and epilepsy.

Without knowing what ‘Fugue’ meant in both its musical and psychological contexts, I certainly witnessed and experienced both of its definitions within While You Sleep.

Presented by Kate Neal and Sal Cooper this multi-layered show utilises a string quartet, pianist, and the use of animation and other visual media to journey through a series of sinister and off-kilter, dream-like scenes, with sprinkles of bizarre humour, to emulate the complexity of musical and psychological fugue.  

A gauze screen placed close to the front of the stage greets audiences as they walk into PICA’s performance space. When the quartet immediately starts the gauze acts as our first introduction into the use of animation in the show. Subtle light shines onto the musicians making them visible through the gauze without compromising the projection. The audience is immediately taken to a place which seems like it’s been lifted from someone’s haunted dream.

Eventually the gauze is pulled back to reveal the musicians, another screen at the back of the stage and a piano. The string quartet comprised of Zachary Johnston, Isabel Hede, Phoebe Green and David Moran, is placed on wheely chairs which they move around on in choreographed sequences while playing from memory. Pianist Jacob Abela does not have a wheely chair but moves through the space as required, at one point pushing out a tiny piano from the darkness which he plays with vigour.

Musicians Zachary Johnston, Isabel Hede, Phoebe Green, David Moran and Jacob Abela in While You Sleep. Image by Edify Media.

The music has great depth and feels fully immersive, it’s also timed implacably to keep up with the visuals. There are many occasions throughout the show where it’s hard to know where to look between the musicians and whatever animation is playing. Regardless of where you look, it’s compelling.

Sal Cooper’s screen-based media is full of interesting choices, starting with the use of multiple forms of animation including hand-drawn, 3-D and stop-motion which appear in unique scenes. The content of these scenes again feels like they’ve been plucked from someone’s dreams as we see a mix of dark, funny, profound, and often nonsensical visuals. The way the media is projected is another element of interest, sometimes using the floor and performers to project upon which brings combining the live and digital elements.  

Musicians Zachary Johnston, Isabel Hede, Phoebe Green, David Moran and Jacob Abela in While You Sleep. Image by Edify Media.

While a lot happens across the show’s 50-minutes, there’s an evident close attention to detail with everything feeling intentional and highly considered. Emily Barrie’s costume design is evidence of this. The musicians are dressed quite subtly but each has an individual style of shirt which has been beautifully printed to match the show’s dark colour palette.

While You Sleep is an impressively work which is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Creative directors Sal Cooper and Kate Neal demonstrate mastery in their respective skills of media and music, while pushing the boundaries of audience expectations.  

While You Sleep has two more shows at PICA Saturday 16 July, 2pm and 6pm.