Tag Archives: immersive

In defence of immersive theatre

I’m back. That was a much-longer-than-intended-unplanned hiatus. Apologies. (I’ll bore you with the reasons if you so wish, but let’s be succinct and say “life” happened, and I was a bit busy. Mostly with theatre-related stuff, but not enough intervening time to write about any of it).

The big theatre news of last week was the announcement of a new Punchdrunk show! And yes of course I’m excited at that prospect. But the internet saw this, and lots of people in the know were very unhappy, and other people saw the kerfuffle and decided that they too should be outraged by what little they knew about the show, even though tickets haven’t gone on sale yet and no one has actually seen it. A bit like when Jerry Springer: The Opera found its way into the Daily Mail, and lots of people who never knew about it before were MORTALLY OFFENDED at the FOUR THOUSAND SWEAR WORDS in the score, and some of them may have died from the ensuing aneurysm from so much blood-boiling FURY.

So, why has this made some people so grumpy? It mostly comes down to Punchdrunk being victims of their own success. Having been amongst the early pioneers of immersive theatre, they certainly lead the field in their particular variety. They’ve had generous grants from the Arts Council (sometimes at the expense of other companies) which have helped enable them to stage shows on an epic scale with beyond-your-wildest-dreams production values, select some of the finest performers from across the globe, and present it in such a way that it develops a cult following, and keeps audiences coming back for more. Any morsel from them is surrounded by immense hype and speculation… but also the accusation of being too exclusive.

They have the perfect storm on their hands:

  • Tickets only available to those who enter a ballot
  • Only two audience per show slot
  • The limited number of performances
  • The necessity to buy tickets in pairs
  • A fixed £55 price point
  • An estimated 6 hour running time
  • The requirement to be physically able to stand/walk/(run?) for the duration of the show
  • The means (by contactless card or Oyster) to travel by London public transport
  • The preclusion of anyone pregnant, or who has issues with confined spaces or stressful situations

Quite understandably, some are annoyed by this – both individual elements, and the combinations thereof. That it reserves the Punchdrunk experience for those who are able-bodied and financially comfortable, rather than working to make the arts more accessible. For those who are interested in this kind of theatre, this will be THE hot ticket of 2017. But for another fiercely-debated immersive experience, You Me Bum Bum Train (which sends audience one at a time through a labyrinth of rooms and situations they may never encounter in their ordinary life) internet queues for the £49 tickets reached into quintuple figures within minutes of going on sale, and it wasn’t long before some were appearing on ticket re-sale sites for more than 10 times their face value. I can only presume a ticket ballot is to limit this as much as possible.

As for the rest on the list, Punchdrunk make an art out of combining cinematic spectacle with powerful intimacy, and serve it up with a generous helping of unsettling tension about what might lurk down the end of that gloomy corridor, and the lingering eye contact which says “follow me, I want to show you something“. In order to achieve this, sometimes they need big spaces for audiences to explore, and sometimes small numbers of people (at times it’s just you, a single member of the audience and one actor. In a small room. Or a cupboard). It’s not for everyone – by which I mean that many people have said “oh God, I can’t think of anything worse!“, but equally, that level of close-proximity intensity is hard to come by in row D of the upper circle.

The Drowned Man

Punchdrunk – The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. Photo by Julian Abrams

The crux of many arguments seems to be: “these things combined make it very difficult for most people to experience this kind of work, and that isn’t fair.” Be it access to tickets, physical/mental well-being, finance, stamina, or any other reason, creativity comes at a price: particularly when you take performance out of a traditional theatre building, and audience out of a numbered seat. But Punchdrunk are not the only ones to employ any of these techniques – there’s a huge number of companies producing work which makes varying demands of its audience. I don’t believe any artistic work begins with the foundation of “how can we make it really difficult for people to experience this?” More likely, quite the opposite.

Traditional theatre (proscenium arch, numbered seats) is guilty of many of these perceived crimes too: it’s not uncommon for top price tickets in the stalls/dress circle to command prices in triple figures, particularly with a big name in the cast. Shows such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Hamilton are massively in demand, with entire batches of tickets selling out over a year in advance. Angels In America (albeit with a seated audience) had a total running time of over 7 hours. The most affordable seats are typically in the Upper Circle or Balcony, which can necessitate climbing a few flights of stairs, and some tiers are raked so steeply that they can induce nausea and dizziness in anyone with a fear of heights. Many theatres sell “restricted view” and “limited legroom” seats, which pose problem for people with back, hip and knee issues, so standing may be preferable. Theatres from Shakespeare’s Globe to the Donmar to the Royal Court offer standing tickets. Ghost Stories came with a necessary content warning – at one point I was sat wondering who was screaming (until I realised it was me).

Perhaps I’m lucky in that I’m an able-bodied adult, with a bit of disposable income, in commuting distance of London. Many aren’t, and it’s vital that as much of the arts as possible is made accessible to these people as well. We’ve seen an increase in recent years in accessible performances, featuring audio-description, StageText, BSL interpreters, relaxed performances with adjusted lighting/sound etc. Step-free access is improving (although still an issue in many older theatres), and new-build venues can meet far more of these requirements while still offering versatility in terms of staging. But how the hell do you offer these choices in an unconventional setting without compromising the content of a show? (A rhetorical question, since I don’t know – but many companies do offer accessible performances, and have clearly thought about ways to accommodate different requirements).

So yes, there are shows which require an audience to follow/keep up with roaming performers. Mostly this will be at a walking pace, but I have raced up 5 flights of stairs in Sleep No More in hot pursuit of Macduff. I’ve crawled through tunnels in The Good Neighbour. I’ve dived into tiny cupboards and curled up under tables during Heist, hoping that the marauding guards can’t hear my heart thundering in my chest. I’ve tottered around Covent Garden’s cobbles with various panto characters in Once Upon A Christmas (while wearing hi-vis and looking like a lipstick-Braveheart). I’ve climbed up onto the roof of Theatre Delicatessen to watch stunning aerial acrobats in the fading daylight during Shelter Me. I’ve traipsed around on gravel for 3 hours for a mediocre promenade version of Romeo & Juliet (not all “immersive” shows are good). Some require excellent mobility and some can only take small numbers of audience at a time. Do we tell these companies too that they are excluding too many people?

shelter me

Circumference Shelter Me at Theatre Delicatessen

But for each of these, there are still shows which fit under the immersive umbrella, but don’t require an Olympic level of fitness. Several companies are creating exceptional multi-sensory work with cutting edge technology and live effects. Yet those too present their own access challenges. Ring, a binaural piece by Fuel takes place in complete darkness wearing headphones (and I mean complete darkness – your eyes never adjust to the blackout). On one hand you’re seated and have no need for vision… but it’s no good if you’re deaf/hard of hearing, and the psychological effects of the sound combined with the hour-long blackout are very intense (they brief you beforehand on what to do if you can’t handle it and need to get out: hand in the air, say “help” repeatedly, and someone with night vision goggles will come and find you). In a sold out performance of 100, I counted 5 seats that were empty at the end when the lights came up. Yet as an experience, I was completely transported into that narrative – the essence of really good theatre.

Every Punchdrunk fan is waiting for their next large-scale show, where they take up residence in a building (usually for a year or so), with exploration opportunities aplenty. Meanwhile they’ve been working on smaller scale projects, including their 2015 collaboration with Absolut, Silverpoint – but not having an iPhone meant I missed out on this. But in addition to their site-specific performance work, Punchdrunk have a well-established enrichment programme, sharing their magical worlds with everyone from primary school children to adults with dementia. The Lost Lending Library has been journeying around London schools for a number of years, arriving without warning (for the kids at least), nourishing imaginations and nurturing reading and writing skills for a few weeks, then disappearing without a trace. Given that I’m not at primary school, I’ve missed out on this too. Do I resent that? Not in the slightest.

So: do we fight to make everything accessible for everyone? Accessibility is improving, but still has a long way to go. Or do we accept that part of what makes theatre so special is its diversity and spectacle, which as a consequence, might not be suited to everyone? Do we tell lighting designers they can’t use strobes, or advise people at the ticket-purchase stage that they’ll feature in the production? Do we tell actors they’ll just have to do more performances to accommodate everyone who wants to see a small-but-in-demand show? Do we tell producers to scrimp on the quality to make the tickets a bit more affordable? Do we tell writers to make a show that’s a bit nicer or easier, because we find it all just a bit too offensive, scary, weird, unpleasant, difficult, controversial? Or do we celebrate the smorgasbord of creativity in all its messy, impractical, thought-provoking, magnificent glory and accept that we’re lucky that any of it gets made at all?

Let theatre be theatre, however it may manifest itself, for its own sake.

Advertisements

Secret Theatre – Secret Studio Lab

A secret location, a closely-guarded plot line and the need for sensible shoes – music to the ears of any immersive theatre fan. Secret Studio Lab have a few productions under their belt on both sides of the Atlantic, and the latest Secret Theatre promises a visit to a city island to immerse yourself in their summer tragedy of love. But the biggest tragedy of all is that this production massively under-delivers on several aspects vital to immersive theatre.

I’m not sure what came first: the choice of play, or the location – but neither really compliments the other. The key to successful site-specific work is to create something which nestles perfectly in its setting – to make it feel as if the piece were written just for that space. So a marketing suite for the swanky new blocks of flats being built on City Island, surrounded by a moat of gravel, and desolate concrete piles with steel girders protruding through the ground isn’t exactly an obvious choice for the text in question, even if the story is set in East London. If you are going to stage the work on an island, there are other more fitting texts in this playwright’s repertoire.

image

My ticket was courtesy of Bargain Theatre. To read the review in full, please click here.

Countdown to Edinburgh Fringe

I’ve never been to Edinburgh Fringe before. (I know, right?) I haven’t been deliberately avoiding it, it’s just been a lack of the fates aligning for me to have enough annual leave to go away for a week in August.

So I have my accommodation and trains booked. I have spent weeks drowning in spreadsheets and maps, meticulously planning how best to pack in everything I want to see, both cost effectively and efficiently so that I’m sticking to venues in the same locale rather than madly criss-crossing the city. This is all good in principle, but I do have a talent for cutting it fine and being easily distracted, so my military precision may all count for nothing.

Last night I begrudgingly accepted that with 8 shows all starting around 2 o’clock, and only 6 days in which to see them, I’d have to let a few things slip. It’s heartbreaking, because so much sounds so promising. The more you look, the more you find. So unless Professor McGonagall can lend me a Time-Turner for the week, I’m going to have to deal with a lot of FOMO (Speaking of which, I should probably find time to go and have a cup of tea in the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter).

But I’ve found some real gems which I’m hoping will be good. Most of my picks seem to fall into the following categories:

  • Comedy
  • Circus
  • Friends’ shows
  • Shakespeare-based
  • Confined spaces/darkness
  • “Please wear sensible shoes”

Some shows fit into more than one category – although I’m yet to find a comedy Macbeth performed to one audience member at a time in a series of dark cupboards in Edinburgh Castle and told through the medium of circus – if someone wants to make that, I promise I will come and see it. Admittedly I dreamt a week ago that I went to see Thunderbirds on Ice which also had audience participation.

So I have a hugely diverse bunch of shows to see: improvised lost Jane Austen titles, 1940’s Hitchock-inspired circus, a Shakespeare where the audience play the other characters, a series of conversations in the back of 3 cars, a choose-your-own-adventure where the audience determine the order of the scenes, frank explorations of mental health, my friend’s older brother trying to transmute base metals into gold, Game of Thrones spin-offs, and a steampunk scavenger hunt. It will be nothing if not eventful. I am quite concerned that I will be torn between the need for sleep and the need to see more shows.

So here are my picks, all beautifully listed for you with links (some of these I’ve managed to see in London previews):

Comedy

Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel
Fake It ’til You Make It
John Robertson – The Dark Room: Symphony of a Floating Head
Sooz Kempner – Character Activist
Thrones! The Musical
Will Seaward Has a Really Good Go at Alchemy
Will Seaward’s Spooky Midnight Ghost Stories II
Winter is Coming. Again.

Circus/Physical Theatre

Blind Man’s Song
Bromance
Close Up
Hitch!
Ockham’s Razor: Arc and Every Action…

Shakespeareish

Hell Hath No Fury
Mrs Shakespeare
Richard III
Titus Andronicus: An All-Female Production
To She or Not to She

Immersive/Confined Spaces/Darkness/Sensible Shoes

Awakening, Sweet and Sour Sensory Composition
Comfort Slaves
Father Time
Fiction
Helpless Doorknobs
Jethro Compton presents Sirenia
Phantasmagoria
Tate Postmodern
This Time Tomorrow
We This Way

Other

Citydash
Down & Out in Paris and London
I, Elizabeth
Much Further Out Than You Thought
My Beautiful Black Dog
The Eulogy of Toby Peach
We Can Make You Happy
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – The Savill Garden, Windsor

“Immersive” is theatre’s buzzword of the moment. But it has come to mean various different things. On one hand, it can be the sensation of stepping through the fourth wall and being immersed in a world which feels completely real, leaving behind the humdrum of ordinary life.  On the other, there is the complex niche genre where you as an audience member have a bearing on your experience of the performance, be that through making active (or passive) choices which then have a tangible impact on how things play out, or wandering through spaces where there are several scenes running simultaneously and it would require repeat visits in order to see all of it. Just when you think you’ve understood how to pinpoint what is and isn’t immersive, another company comes along and throws that definition out of the window.

Watch Your Head’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is very much the former: a site-specific promenade production. But in truth these are clunky words which risk alienating the general public before they’ve even bought their tickets –  and that would be a terrible shame as while it doesn’t break any new ground in terms of immersive theatre, this is a very strong, imaginative and accessible Shakespearean production filled with magic and mischief, set in the breathtakingly beautiful Savill Gardens near Windsor. We were well attended by families, with kids boisterously racing from one scene to the next, lapping up the novelty of multiple locations in the fresh air and fading daylight.

All of Shakespeare’s familiar story is here: bickering lovers, bumbling mechanicals and troublesome fairies – but with plenty more besides. This versatile cast double up as woodland creatures that trill, chirrup and squeak as they guide us deeper into the park.  There is the added bonus of live music, ranging from close harmony singing to bluesy jazz, perfectly complementing the 1920s-inspired costumes.  The passages of text delivered as song add an extra dimension and are pulled off with great finesse. There’s even a little bit of audience participation snuck in, to great comic effect.

My cast highlight was Joss Wyre as a very magnetic Puck – veering between remorseful child and wild-eyed sprite, there are times when you’re never quite sure if she’s made a genuine mistake or is reveling in the havoc she has created; but then an impish twinkle flashes across her face and we know exactly what she’s up to. There are some roles which demand that you crank the overacting up to 11 and Oliver Lavery is the quintessential Bottom, brashly steamrollering through the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, much to the horror of earnest director, Quince (George Jennings).

By far the stand-out performance of the lovers is Paige Round as Helena – bruised of heart by her unrequited love for Demetrius (Edward Firth), she cuts a very sympathetic character – partly because he comes across as so spiteful that it’s a wonder what she sees in him in the first place, apart from his unattainability. Sara Langridge is effortlessly elegant as Hermia – right up until she loses the affections of Lysander (Jared Garfield) to Helena in a slight ‘puck up’ as the flower juice takes effect and everyone falls in love with the wrong person. It is a joy to watch the two boys squabble over Hermia in a hilarious fight scene.

There’s a large amount of doubling up in the cast, e.g. Theseus/Oberon by the brooding and serious Jack Bannell, and Anneli Page who switches from the gentle, reserved Hippolyta into hippy-dippy Titania. While the mechanicals provide the obvious comedy, it’s really refreshing to see them bring contrast and personality to their secondary roles as the fairies. Joshua Considine as the almost Gollum-like Moth, Bruno Major as a very dopey Mustardseed, and Emma Jane Morton as ethereal fruitloop Peaseblossom.

The only thing that spoils it slightly is the inescapable noise from the Heathrow flight path. There are many beautifully subtle moments which are sadly drowned out by passing aeroplanes – but it is testament to the performers that they still manage to tell a very rich story, even if we do miss a few lines. While this is closer to a traditional Shakespeare than the more experimental end of the immersive theatre spectrum, it is still nonetheless a bewitching production filled with wit, depth and invention that is absolutely worth a trip outside the big smoke. Go and see it.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing until Sunday 19th July at The Savill Garden, Wick Lane, Englefield Green, Windsor, Surrey TW20 0UU. Running time approximately 2 hours including an interval. This is a promenade (walking) production through parkland. In the event of rain, an indoor version will be performed instead. For those travelling from London, the closest station is Egham and taxis are available outside; it takes around 10 minutes and costs about £9 each way. For tickets and more information, please go to http://watch-your-head.co.uk/

New Atlantis – The Crystal

In the last year or so, I’ve noticed a growing trend of theatre looking towards the future – imaginings of the world yet to come.  Not the Back To The Future world of hoverboards and self-tying shoelaces, but very plausible scenarios.  A greater reliance on technology, more frequent outbreaks of civil unrest, a strain placed upon resources.  All of these things are present in the brave new world of New Atlantis, a pertinent piece as we approach the General Election in May.

new atlantis

They couldn’t have picked a better building than The Crystal in Royal Victoria, East London (although if you’re not familiar with the area, I’d recommend allowing a little extra time to get there) – all futuristic space-agey glass, vast airy high ceilings and loaded with sustainable engineering – perfect headquarters for the organisation that replaces the failed United Nations in 2036.  But in 2050, the Secretary General calls a meeting to announce that she no longer has the energy to fulfil her duties and must step down; it is now down to us as ‘Agents’ to vote for a new leader from 3 possible canditates.  A little bit King Lear with added “press the red button now” features.  All the while, there is the threat of destabilisation from the ominously named Generation Alpha.

We are introduced to the gravity of the situation through a large screen broadcast: Secretary General Dr. Bryony Weller (Tricia Kelly) speaks with the sort of oratory skill frequently seen in world leaders, yet with a quiet vulnerability.  Her age is rather poignant: hinting to the youngish audience that this will be us in 40 years time, approaching old age and regretting not doing more about climate change when we could still make a tangible difference.  We are encouraged to explore the building for an hour and educate ourselves on the various policies of each candidate by engaging with characters and real scientists.  There are some nice bits of science-fiction styling to the actors’ costumes, whereas the scientists are easily identifiable by their boiler suits.

My ticket was courtesy of Bargain Theatre – you can read the review in full here.

New Atlantis is on until 25th January 2015 at The Crystal, Royal Victoria Dock, London E16 1GB.   For tickets and more information, go to http://www.enlightenmentcafe.co.uk/ 

Top 10 Theatre Shows of 2014

You’re asking me to pick just 10?

I’ve basically binged on theatre this year, totting up over 50 different shows, some with multiple visits. Thank goodness reviewing has permitted me to see a few shows for free (Thank you to Bargain Theatre and #LDNTheatreBloggers for letting me see shows with you/on your behalf and lessening the impact on my bank balance). The vast majority of what I’ve seen this year has been of a really high standard, which has made it hard to choose. I should point out that the ranking on the first few is purely arbitrary – they’ve made it into my top 10 ahead of 3 or 4 other shows that I really really liked.

10. 1984 – Playhouse Theatre
Oh God, this was harrowing. I can’t say it was an enjoyable play to watch, but as a piece of theatre, it was incredible. Every bit as visceral, unnerving and horrifying as I expected it to be. For theatre that moves you to feel something, it doesn’t get much better than this.

9. Ring – Battersea Arts Centre
This was probably the best piece of audio theatre that I’ve experienced this year. This show proves just how heightened your sense of hearing becomes when you’re sitting in complete darkness (and I really do mean complete darkness). It plays tricks with your mind and your perception of the space around you. Definitely worth “seeing” again.

8. Forbidden Broadway – Vaudeville Theatre
Just the right balance between jazz hands and acerbic wit, Forbidden Broadway packs in showtune after showtune, each with new lyrics. If you’d seen the shows in question, it was hilarious – even if you hadn’t, the humour was well pitched for the uninitiated.

7. Good People – Noel Coward Theatre
From the very beginning, Imelda Staunton gave one of the greatest performances on the West End stage. She machine-gunned through her desperate pleas to her boss, barely stopping to draw breath. She was fragile, unlikeable at times, yet funny and sweet. A very complex character, with faults and foibles.

6. The Knight of the Burning Pestle – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Pure Jacobean silliness and my first visit to the breathtakingly beautiful candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. This was a well observed satire about badly behaved audiences, with a good dose of slapstick thrown in. A play outside of a play filled with mirth and mayhem.

5. The Nether – Royal Court
Probably one of the best “this could really happen” plays I’ve seen in recent years. The uncomfortable dilemma of how to deal with paedophiles, brilliantly written and cleverly staged (another incredible set by Es Devlin) – yet it never told you what to think or how to feel. I was stunned into silence for 5 minutes after. A real thinking play.

4. Titus Andronicus – Shakespeare’s Globe
Gloriously gory and wickedly funny, I first saw Lucy Bailey’s production of Titus Andronicus 8 years ago and was thrilled at the prospect of a revival. It didn’t disappoint – the ever accelerating cycle of revenge and politics played out in a mêlée of tit-for-tat violence and careful manoeuvres, all the while, making us laugh at some pretty chilling stuff.

3. The Play That Goes Wrong – Duchess Theatre
A sheer comic delight – everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Things fell to pieces, stuff went missing, people couldn’t get on (or off) the stage… but meanwhile, the cast did everything they could to downplay – and adapt to – the chaos unfolding around them, and valiantly carried on with the show. A fresh take on the old art of coarse acting.

2. Let The Right One In – Apollo Theatre
This was more than just another teen vampire love story – the staging was exceptional. As a portrayal of the horror genre, they made good use of suspense – there was a tortuous wait for the impending ‘jump’. There was a real elegance to the scene changes, making the whole thing completely seamless.

1. The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable by Punchdrunk
Could it really be anything else?  The show that changed my life and redefined everything I know about theatre? From the multi-layered stories to the performance logistics of 32 actors each having to be in the right place at the right time. From the meticulous detail in the set to the glorious choreography, to the sheer inter-connectedness of everything, I take my hat off to everyone involved. I still miss this show, but I’m just thankful that I had the chance to go as many times as I did.

Possibly the best Christmas present I could ask for (short of them reopening Temple Studios), they’ve released footage of the final finale.  I am in that crowd somewhere, on the verge of tears.

Here’s to another year of fantastic theatre!