Action and Reaction – REACT Project review

In 2016, Hydrocracker and Blast Theory brought Operation Black Antler to Medway. In 2017, they returned with their new project REACT. On Saturday 11 February, Ideas Test went along to Fort Amherst to watch the performance…

Spaces and places are full of untold histories, woven into the walls over periods of time. The React project took this concept and, in true OBA fashion, created something innovative, imaginative and a little bit unsettling. The event started with a tour of Fort Amherst’s tunnels, something simultaneously terrific and terrifying. With snow being slowly carried by the icy evening breeze, taking a trip sixty feet underground was almost welcomed! Leading the audience on the journey up to the Guard House – where the React Project was situated – was one of Fort Amherst’s expert guides who indulged in divulging ghost stories about Amherst’s abundant history.

Moving en masse meandering from tunnel to tunnel, the group finally reached the Guard House. Shepherded in and then shut in, a weighted silence spread through the room but didn’t last long. A chorus of voices gradually started to erupt from the depths of darkness, ascending the stairs one by one and immersing themselves in the curve of the awaiting audience. The singing stopped and the first of many vignettes began, in this case the story of a young girl guarding her right for survival. When each scene ended, the audience would be moved to the next location, sometimes silently but mostly accompanied by an acapella interlude. A new vignette would then begin, each time making great use of Fort Amherst’s evocative history. When the final scene ended, the cast took a bow to well deserved applause having pulled off the process of producing, practising and performing an original play in just 24 hours.

React was born from the idea of creating a lasting impression of Operation Black Antler, but in a smaller, less consuming manner. If OBA was a force of impact in Medway, React is the after effect, the repetitive ripple some distance away. A few of React’s performers were returning artists, but many of the 12 strong cast were new local actors who worked intently to bring the project to life. The cast brought in external influences including songs, poems, writing, all of which were condensed, developed and then interwoven into React’s many layers.

Themes of tension, confrontation and guarded feelings seemed to be the most prevalent denominators across all of the performance pieces. The morals and messages were carried not only by the actors but by the site itself too. Voices echoed and reverberated around the rooms, transporting the audience  on a physical journey as they followed the sounds. Using a building with such rich history must have helped build in the originality of this site-responsive piece; the further underground the audience was beckoned, the more historic the building felt with its exposed brick and blanket of spider webs. In unison, the layers of the performance and the building were peeled back.

While there was a very site-specific contemporary response, the layers of the Fort’s history can be unearthed even further back. The travel element of the performance – taking the audience from place to place making use of every available space in the Guard Room – resonated with the movement of the real Lord Ashcroft travelling across the waters to America. Parallels could also be found in the songs, which sounded somewhat spiritual in their lyricism and could easily have been describing action across the River Medway.

The word legacy featured prominently in one of the scenes but the legacy of OBA is not just in the performance; it’s in people and place too. The hidden histories that both OBA and React produced can be passed on, like subsequent, smaller ripples that serve as something more collective and tangible than just a memory.

Ideas Test would like to say a huge well done to everyone involved in React and congratulate Claire Biddiscombe, Harrison French, Irina Fridman, Mathew George, Margarita Gramegna, Zoe Howlett, Lauren Hunt, Dione Owers, Priscilla Watson and Helen Young for their hard work and great performances.