A barefooted Kieran Hurley says a gentle “Hello” to the audience and sits down at a desk – the only thing on the stage. It’s clear that he doesn’t expect a reply. We don’t need to have read the flyer telling us that this a play about the end of the world to sense that what’s about to happen is serious.
Throughout the next sixty minutes, this one man, sitting at a desk, creates an astonishingly vivid picture of the hour or so before the apocalypse in the lives of four very different characters: a financier, burning out from her work in (ironically) ‘Futures’; a teenage victim of sexting; a barrista, buckling under the strain of targets and the need to be ‘people perfect’; and a cocaine-addled celebrity searching for a cause and trying to reach his girlfriend as she gives birth to their daughter. These characters feel ‘real’ – while it may be hard to like them all, we can recognise that, in their own ways, they are each doing the best they can to deal with the pressures in their lives. They are paddling furiously to keep afloat – and we can all relate to that. As annihilation approaches, the narrative picks up pace and Hurley jumps frantically to and fro between their stories. We ‘watch’ as the characters respond to the realisation that it is the end – as their ambitions, anxieties and hopes disintegrate. What will happen to their pride, their insecurities and their resentments as they each confront personal and global destruction? What revelations – if any – will surface?
All this is conveyed through a potent combination of words, light and sound. There is no ‘action’ at all. Hurley’s movement, such as it is, is confined to his head and upper torso – apart from one brief moment in which he stands up. And yet it is an exhausting performance – draining to watch and so intense that you can’t imagine Hurley being able to do very much of anything afterwards – maybe sitting in a darkened room or languishing in a corner somewhere like a deflated balloon.
The writing is exquisite: poetic and powerful, with every line/sentence honed to perfection. Struggling to catch it all, I make a mental note to get a copy of the play so I can linger over the language – impossible to do with Hurley’s breathlessly furious delivery. He is unfeasibly fluent and expressive, with subtle shifts in tone and demeanour to indicate which character‘s narrative we are listening to. There are times, in the latter part of the performance, when it feels like an assault – when the words come so thick and fast that tuning out feels like a necessary act of self-defence. Which is probably pretty much how it felt to the characters experiencing their last moments.
Supporting the narrative is a devastating sound-scape (devised by Michael John McCarthy) which ranges from eerie, through pulsating and ethereal to intolerably jarring. And it is all controlled with great delicacy by Hurley from his desk, pressing assorted buttons/keys as though he is plucking the strings of a harp. Meanwhile, a stark white light illuminates Hurley’s face and throws shifting shadows, alternately multiplying and shrinking, to create a darkly menacing backdrop.
It is an exceptionally ambitious piece, both in form and content. Notwithstanding Hurley’s undoubted ability to compel our attention, an hour is a long time for a monologue – especially one where there is so little actually ‘happening’. That said, I found the performance mesmerising. The content is, of course, deeply disturbing (it wouldn’t have been doing its job if it hadn’t been.) There is a haunting refrain towards the end; “What we have is now”. ‘Heads Up’ challenges us, at both a micro and macro level, to re-examine our values and our lives. Amongst all the ‘noise – the personal anxieties, the social pressures and the political posturings – what is actually important? Faced with the prospect Hurley forces us to imagine, we are left with two questions; what do we want to keep and how do we go about keeping it?