First published in The Times, Thursday August 22 2019
Groupwork is a new Scottish theatre initiative led by the co-directors Finn den Hertog and Vicki Manderson, who collaborated on last year’s Fringe award-winner Square Go. On the basis of this unnerving, atmospheric dance-theatre piece, the company appears to have arrived fully formed.
The show takes as its inspiration the true story of 14 high-school students from Le Roy in upstate New York who in 2011 became affected by a mysterious condition that encompassed seizure-like symptoms, uncontrollable spasms and verbal outbursts. A media circus rapidly descended on the small town, only to disappear just as quickly when the news cycle moved on. Various explanations were offered for the affliction, including conversion disorder and environmental pollution resulting from a historical train accident.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
The devised piece, with a witty script by Jake Jeppson, includes tropes familiar from True Crime podcasts such as S-Town and the heady layering of images, ambient music, non-sequiturs and stunned narration that characterises the documentaries of Adam Curtis. We start out with an unidentified narrator travelling to the Hope River area with the intention of casting light on the case. Interviews with suspicious locals are spliced with documentary footage of the medical professionals who treated and diagnosed the students and inch-perfect pastiches of local history videos.
The show, produced in association with Thickskin, is less interested in tying up this mystery in the manner of a crime drama than exploring how we respond to strange events and flail around in search of clear answers. It is easy enough to mock those who blamed supernatural elements for this phenomenon and advocated prayer and repentance in the manner of the 17th century Salem witch trials. Yet, as the piece shows, even a medical diagnosis feels inadequate in the face of such an unusual set of circumstances.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Unlike the True Crime genre, which ties itself up in knots trying to impose narrative structures on anything uncanny or off-the-wall, The Afflicted prefers to steep its audience in the terrors of the inexplicable. Den Hertog’s deliriously compelling show interweaves dance and drama throughout but the piece is at its most effective when the narrative element splutters out and we are left with the jagged intensity of Manderson’s choreography, which is performed with utter commitment by the four-strong ensemble.