It’s been about 9 years since I last visited Battersea Arts Centre. In need of some ‘alternative’ performance viewing to talk about in an essay for my downright weird university course, my mum and I toddled off to see ‘Vacaxion Vacaxion’ by Crazy Horse and ‘Attempts on her Life’ by Martin Crimp. The former was sheer brilliance, the latter a series of uninspiring monologues. With essay written, I consigned all forms of contemporary performance to the “never again” box.
But slowly, with productions such as The Factory Hamlet, ‘Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World’ by Bad Physics and most recently, ‘The Drowned Man’ by Punchdrunk, I have found myself at ease with seeing the more unusual things again, with a sense of curiosity rather than dread. It was pure coincidence that I had booked tickets for performances on the very night that BAC were celebrating not only the building’s 120th birthday, but also getting the rights to the building for another 120 years. Just think – this haven of boundless creativity will be in safe hands until at least 2133.
Rebels & Rubble – by Il Pixel Rosso
This is an interactive audio-visual tour of the fictional tumultuous history of Battersea Arts Centre. Starting in the foyer, I was given a pair of headphones and video goggles (20/20 vision or contact lenses essential! Afraid they’re not particularly comfortable to wear) and led to the foot of the grand marble steps. This is a solo affair; it is just you and a guide whose primary function is to gently steer you through the tour.
It’s hard to describe, but imagine that you have a camera at eye level looking down and filming your own feet as you walk about – this is what you have to follow. It’s a bit odd at first and it takes a bit of a leap of faith to walk in the prescribed footsteps (especially in a busy, noisy building where you initially feel quite self-conscious and the first thing they want you to do is climb a flight of stairs), but your guide ensures your safety and you soon get absorbed in the story and following the instructions. It’s an odd juxtaposition watching a suffragette running through an empty hallway when minutes before you’ve seen it crowded with people. It reminded me partly of the kids’ TV show ‘Knightmare’ (being simultaneously both the helmetted child in the empty room AND the kids in the dungeon watching the screen).
The further you walk, the more implicitly you have to trust your guide. What feels like walking through a series of doors as you go from one period of time to another, means that you lose track of real time and although your eyes and ears know where you are in the story, your body is quite disorientated. When I took the goggles off at the end I was amazed at how little distance I had really travelled.
I had some time to spare between performances so I was able to watch someone else go through the experience. It was reassuring to see that the guide takes very good care of you, helping you with steps and keeping other people from bumping into you as well as handing you various props and creating various effects.
The Unbuilt Room – by Seth Kriebel
This is a piece of immersive theatre billed as being about how places create memories and memories create places. But it’s so much more than that. This is a riff on those early text-based computer games which give you options to go north/south or go up/down stairs and rely on using your imagination to bring the game to life. It does of course help that the game is set in the BAC.
In the foyer, we are formed into a team of 6 (based on the time on your ticket) and sent to a small room which contains 8 chairs and our gamesmaster, Seth. We are encouraged to talk to each other and he goes around the circle as each of us take a ‘turn’. He sets the scene of us standing on the outside steps of the building; his voice bright yet mechanical (rather like Kryten from Red Dwarf) describes every location and our options: “Foyer. You are standing in a mosaic tiled room with a grand staircase going up, a corridor that goes north and a door to a spiral staircase that goes down. You can go up, down or North. What would you like to do?”
Thankfully my team (whom I’d never met before) were all up for working together and with every room we mapped out the geography of the building. Within minutes of starting, everyone was leaning in, desperate to catch every snippet of information that might be useful as we explored the depths of the basement. When returning to a room, descriptions were said aloud with the same meticulous delivery every single time, making it almost comical.
We kept going round and round in circles and just as we had made a breakthrough, with almost poetic timing, our allocated 20 minute slot was up and we were all desperate to find out where we could go next! Immediately after, a few of us went exploring the building to find the hallowed spiral staircase that led down to many – possibly fictional? – rooms and undiscovered places. It was nowhere to be seen.
A wonderfully structured way to let your imagination run wild and go on an adventure in an alternate reality. I would absolutely go back for second helpings of this one in a heartbeat.
‘Rebels & Rubble’ and ‘The Unbuilt Room’ are on at the Battersea Arts Centre until Saturday 23rd November. Both shows are £5.00 each and have various time slots throughout the evening. For information and tickets, go to https://www.bac.org.uk/content_category/1883/see_whats_on/current_shows