In the thick musty air of the Old Vic Tunnels, the Without Warning cast, led by choreographer Lizzi Kew-Ross, delivered a haunting exploration of the writer Brian Keenan’s more than four years in captivity, with a cacophony of sound, light and movement. Keenan’s story, documented in his book An Evil Cradling (1991), reflects on the years he spent kept in captivity by Islamic fundamentalists. Keenan’s account describes the terror and horror of isolation, the dehumanizing conditions and treatment, and mental and emotional deconstruction he endured. It is within this imagery that Without Warning developed, as an exploration into the thoughts and feelings of a man held hostage.

Lizzi Kew Ross's Without Warning, © Peter Anderson
Lizzi Kew Ross's Without Warning,
© Peter Anderson

Without Warning successfully delivered a raw and exquisite ode to the psyche of a captive, while still creating a grotesque, enthralling beauty. Using the dark and earthy atmosphere of the tunnels, the cast of four dancers and four musicians created an eerie world which the audience was invited to wander through: the piece’s main action moved from room to room throughout the performance, with the audience following. This caused a cumbersome process of renegotiation for the audience every time the performers changed rooms. Inevitably audience members would settle in places that were eventually in the way of performers, leading to more bobbling and sidestepping that detracted from the atmosphere of the piece.

Often dancing in pairs or groups, the performers never interacted with the audience, and did not show much emotional connection to each other – even while the movement suggested intimate and meaningful relationships. There were glimpses of the connection Keenan shared with British journalist John McCarthy, though the overpowering emotion exhibited was rage and resistance, often subsiding into hollow acceptance. Similarly the interactions Keenan recounted with the guards were mostly absent, and instead Kew-Ross and cast seemed to focus more on the internal conflict Keenan endured. Throughout the piece the performers operated in two-way relationships, where they were at the same time reliant on and suppressed by each other. At one point, a woman struggles to stand while the others stand around her forcing her to stay on the floor, while repeating the words “stand up, stand up.”

The movement was set to a beautiful and elegant soundscape that used voice, string instruments and percussive elements. Most of the sound used in the piece was performed live by the cast, who travelled through the rooms creating the score for movement happening sometimes far away. This, coupled with striking uses of light, turned the Old Vic Tunnels into a space that was sometimes open and airy, and other times cramped and uncomfortable. These same lights were meant to guide the audience away from the performance space; however, the erratic changes often left confused viewers and even technical staff in the light subtracting further from the performance.

The evening glided to a finish with a stunningly crafted duet featuring women crawling over each other and moving toward the audience, one singing a melody that unraveled from melancholy sweetness into a hoarse screeching.

Without Warning packs a strong punch with sound, lighting and movement that was as thrilling as it was disorientating. While the performers created a world that was full of anguish and despair, leaving a soft and trailing beauty, the audience was often pulled away by the practicality of moving and resettling in each new space. Ultimately the audience hung in an uncertain confusion, rather than feeling the full weight of the Keenan-inspired imagery Without Warning had to offer.