A Listening Experience of AURA: A Musical In The Dark
Last Friday, I went to see (or rather listen to) a play produced by Teatru Malta called AURA: A Musical In The Dark at Esplora Interactive Science Centre. Directed by Vikesh Godhwani, AURA tells the story of MaryLou, an eight-year-old girl who copes with her illness by going to an escapist fantasy island called Aura. I went into this knowing nothing except that the musical would be performed inside the Planetarium and offer a unique sensory experience, so I was not sure what to expect. Frankly, I had been expecting some cool light tricks, but what I got instead was pleasantly surprising.
Before entering the Planetarium, we were each given a set of headphones, a playbill that unfolds into a poster, as well as a sachet instructing us to “open [ it ] at the right moment”. When we entered the venue, we found our seats and waited with our headphones on. After a few safety checks, every light source was suppressed and the play opened with an upbeat musical number. It quickly became clear that when they said “a musical in the dark” they were being quite literal. My initial response was a mixture of bewilderment and dread, having already known how difficult it is for me to picture settings and action based on descriptions alone. In a way it was like listening to an audiobook, except you couldn’t really rewind if you spaced out (as I did often). Not to mention, we were pretty much sitting in a giant ball with zero light and I spent too much time being hyper aware of that. I did eventually settle into the experience, and I actually managed to open the sachet at the right moment.
In addition to the headphones, other sensory features were implemented to further immerse the audience into the story; Every time the Jellyfish zapped somebody, the theatre seats would vibrate. The mysterious sachet contained two gummy worms, which we were meant to open when one of the characters ate a piece of candy. When a raging tempest arose in Aura, I felt drops of water fall on my hands, which I can only assume came from the sprinklers. A floral scent was sprayed throughout the room to simulate the scent of flowers (though I did not catch this one myself), and the list goes on.
However, there were a few creative decisions that confused me; The cast was composed of four actors who each played four or five characters each, which was disorienting and made it harder to distinguish between the characters. MaryLou’s voice actor in particular, Sandie Von Brockdorff, dazzled with her vocals during the musical numbers, but she didn’t remotely sound like a kid and that took me out of the experience. If your play depends on the audience being able to picture what they’re hearing, then shouldn’t your protagonist’s voice match the character? With all the effort and detail that was put into the production, this oversight irks me somewhat. While I’m not saying they should’ve put a primary school student in that recording booth, perhaps someone with a higher-pitched voice would’ve been a better fit for the role of an eight-year-old.
On the other hand, Rachel Fabri’s performance as Peppa, an elderly woman who develops a bond with MaryLou, was a standout for me personally. Fabri’s imitation of an old lady was very believable, and were it not for the playbill I probably would’ve been questioning the actress’ age. As for the music, composer Luke Saydon, sound designer Matteo Depares and pianist Veronique Vella did an impressive job; there were definitely a few songs I’d like to listen to again. The impassioned duet between MaryLou’s two dads Mike (William Shackleton) and Dave (Jake Sawyers) in particular delivered a powerful emotional punch. As someone who honestly wasn’t entirely sure what was happening at the time narratively, it was enough to make me tear up.
After the musical concluded, the lights were once again switched on and the cast took the stage along with the pianist. It was then revealed that the actors had been acting and singing live through binaural microphones in a recording booth next door, which was a lovely and satisfying surprise. There is something so intimate and special about the way everyone in that theatre heard the same things but imagined every character, object and setting in a different way. I attended this play with two friends; One of them pictured Peppa as this sweet old lady who watched us play an intense game of Go Fish at a coffee shop one time, while the other pictured her as Grammy Norma from The Lorax. Quite a range.
To me, AURA is a story about feeling like life has passed you by, and the people we leave a mark on throughout it. However, I do not think AURA’s strengths lie within its story, but the sensory experience it offers. This musical made me realise how much I rely on visual cues to follow a story, and question whether I really need to watch one unfold on a gigantic bright screen or a huge well-lit stage to get invested. And while I will not even dare to claim I understand the challenges of being visually impaired now, I came out of that planetarium with a new perspective.
This one project has been three years in the making and survived a pandemic through the passion and hard work of its creators, namely Sean Buhagiar, Vikesh Godhwani and Marta Vella. Unfortunately, the musical closed last week, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for more accessible and innovative productions like this in the future. What’s more, I hope to see people get out of their comfort zone and go to these events. It was definitely an adjustment, and for a moment there it felt like I was transported back to the days of secondary school listening comprehensions, but it’s really more like watching a foreign film and reading subtitles – It’s a little more work, but it’s worth it and millions of people do it everyday.