Edinburgh review: World Without Us (Summerhall)

Ontroerend Goed’s piece about the world after we have gone is an amazing thing at the Edinburgh Fringe

World Without Us
World Without Us

What if, one moment, we all ceased to exist? Ontroerend Goed‘s World Without Us imagines that prospect, and plays out proceedings after we’ve gone. At first, little changes – airplanes fly on autopilot, machines maintain themselves – but gradually, things start to decay. Our world, the human world, slowly disintegrates.

Though the first at the Fringe, World Without Us is the third of a trilogy. The first part recounts history in full. The second, a palindromic performance, works both ways at once. This looks ahead.

It’s a return to Ontroerend Goed’s roots as a poetry collective. Beautifully calibrated, melancholic and bittersweet, the text zooms in and zooms out, from spiders’ webs to satellites, battery lights to suns. It weaves from here – this very room and this very instant – all the way to eternity; a sly way of tethering speculation to reality, coaxing us in. Performer Valentijn Dhaenens speaks with the softness of a sermon. To listen is to drift through space and time; a deeply meditative experience.

Not an entirely soothing one, either. Quietly alarming, in fact. In its vastness, World Without Us underlines our insignificance – how things carry on in our absence – and looks at our lasting effect on the planet, philosophically as well as ecologically. Plastics stick around for centuries on centuries; far longer than knowledge or art. Nature retakes our cities. What, exactly, do we leave behind? What have we made that’s worth anything? Everything ends anyway. The sun encroaches year on year.

As theatre, it’s something you sit with, turning things over in your head. It wouldn’t work on the page. Words disappear when spoken, their half-life smaller than any other, and this is a show steeped in absence. It taps into the sense that theatre’s a sealed-off space. Outside, the world carries on without us. But it also brings the whole world, the entirety of its future, into the room.

It’s meticulously done: delicately thought and diligently researched. Beneath New York, a time capsule from 1938, waits to corrode. Inside, a letter by Albert Einstein decries systemic inequality and wars between nations. Light years away, the last trace of humanity zooms onwards. The sum total of our species – every nation, every race – is contained on a gold vinyl disc stuck to a satellite. It’s an amazing thing: a distillation of human achievement – art, science, life, language; all of us on one disc. You see humanity from the outside and yet, launched in 1974, it makes everything since obsolete. A world without us, indeed.

World Without Us runs at Summerhall at 11.30am until 28 August (except 15 and 22).

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