Covid Lockdown Breath Machine

Producer: Knaive Theatre
Writer: Lavinia Murray
Director: Tyrrell Jones
Composer/Sound designer: Dr Robert Bentall
Dramaturg: Sam Redway
Cast: Sophie Coward and Sam Redway
Dates of run: August 6-29
Running time: just under 50 minutes
Venue: online, as part of the Edinburgh fringe at Summerhall


The Edinburgh Fringe has always been the place to push at the limits of what theatre is.

This year, that is truer than ever as the uncertainties of COVID-19 have driven a digital shift.

Covid Lockdown Breath Machine is at the experimental, immersive, perfectly-paced end of disembodied drama.

Instead of luring its audience into one of the intimate, crowded spaces typical of Edinburgh’s labyrinth of fringe venues, it requires the listener to be alone in a darkened room with a computer or phone and headphones and to click on a link.  The headphones are essential to enabling the binaural experience central to the production’s aims.

Binaural, literally relating to two ears, allows sound to come from more than one direction and conveys the sense we are not just watching the protagonist, but we are the protagonist; instead of a communal experience, we are alone with a virus, dumped by a lover and unable to find the phone charger that is our connection to the rest of the human world.

With a snatch of Boris Johnson asking the nation to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives, the action is rooted in COVID times.  It is also based on the oldest of themes – loss and redemption – and through this lens, COVID is just another metaphor.

Informed by director Tyrrell Jones’ own COVID experience of acute breathlessness and fear of suffocation, established radio drama writer Lavinia Murray’s script has the force of the strange but poetically and politically true.  We’re mostly in the realm of the mind, where anything is possible, especially when we’re lulled by Dr Robert Bentall’s soundscape that ties in the breath of life with the winds of the planet and even the universe, as we pan out from the micro-world of the protagonist, played by Sophie Coward.

She is alone but for an armillary sphere left behind by Nell, her ex-lover, a bonsai tree and a series of voices, played with eerie menace by Sam Redway, as an oxygen deficit unleashes fearful imaginings.

Air is the ultimate asset.  In COVID times, we are willing to trade two of our senses – smell and taste – to be able to inhale it.  It’s also the link to the other great existential threat of climate change and smuggled into this drama is the factoid that it takes approximately eight trees to produce enough oxygen to sustain one human for a year.

It could all serve only to heighten our anxiety, especially when the human race is in danger of failing to learn from the crisis it’s in.

“Where are the changes we could have made?” the play asks, as we begin to stop noticing that everything is still under threat.

Welcome as it is, we should not be fooled by the happy ending of hope, fresh air, a fully-charged phone and the sense of a new beginning.

Barbara Lewis © 2021.