Taking advantage of the rising interest in investigative journalism and true crime podcasts, The Afflicted plays with our fascination with the inexplicable. Based on true events surrounding the ‘outbreak’ of a Tourettes-like illness among a group of American schoolgirls, groupwork theatre’s debut at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a thrilling multimedia and physical theatre performance.
The tone set in the opening moments of The Afflicted is perfect, immediately creating an air of mystery and intrigue while simultaneously leaving the audience uneasy. Projected above the four performers is a screen, which at the beginning slowly zooms in on the ‘live’ recording time of the performance. This attempt to embed the idea that the show is meant to reflect the structure of a podcast is a clever one, though the performance could potentially have benefited from this reminder being present throughout. Still, the narrator role shared by the four young women keeps the action tight and well-structured. What is more, the detached nature of the girls speaking into the microphones is greatly unsettling, with Olivia Barrowclough’s chilling deadpan gaze into the audience hard to look away from.
In exploring the unexplained affliction of the 24 girls in a small community in Upstate New York, The Afflicted examines the way in which psychological symptoms and mental illness in women are understood. ‘Hysteria’, ‘mass psychogenic illness’ and ‘conversion disorder’ were all terms used to try and explain the odd symptoms suffered by the group of girls. There is also the tenuous link between the town and the women trialled further north at Salem. These aspects to the case are cleverly conveyed through the use of real-life news footage and old-school, documentary-style clips, which are interspersed throughout; all the while, these ‘tics’ begin to manifest in the girls themselves. These leads to some enthralling choreography where the girls are more unnerving than ever, pulling the audience in closer.
The time and effort the cast and directors Finn den Hertog and Vicki Manderson have put into making The Afflicted is obvious from start to finish. The decision to caption the performance is a nice touch, adding to the documentary element of the performance, while also making The Afflicted an accessible show throughout the whole Fringe. The use of pre-recorded and live images on the backdrop adds not only to the educational aspect of the performance (which has been given a perfect stage in Summerhall’s Demonstration Room) but also to the perplexity of the situation. There are times when your senses are overwhelmed by everything that’s going on – the rumbling music, disturbing screen images and ritualistic dancing of the performers all coming together to make for a gripping experience.
While Olivia Barrowclough, Grace Gibson, Felixe Forde and Amy Kennedy are utterly captivating throughout this performance, they suffer from the same fate as many an investigative podcaster or journalist. While The Afflicted does broach the potential causes of the illness and potential supernatural influences, the case of Hope Falls runs cold. Had there been more substance behind the story told, then The Afflicted could be even more riveting and traumatising than it currently stands. Even so, groupwork have brought a striking performance to Summerhall this Fringe. You’ll feel possessed to go see it again.