Is theatre becoming too immersive?
Alice Jones has been put on the spot by actors time and again – and she's sick of it
I had been in New York for less than 24 hours when my sister abandoned me in a warehouse. "I've got to find the naked rave," she whispered, eyes crazed behind a white beaked mask. And off she went. I didn't see her again for three hours.
It would be nice to say that this kind of thing doesn't happen very often but it does. These days, if you're a keen theatre-goer, it's almost unavoidable. That's why we were in the warehouse – we were at the theatre. At Sleep No More, to be precise, Punchdrunk's trippy take on Macbeth, which unfolds over five floors and across 100 rooms of a former lock-up/ nightclub on West 27th Street. Audience members are handed a carnival mask (to remove inhibitions) and shoved into the labyrinth where they are expected to poke around graveyards, bedrooms and apothecary shops, follow characters into darkened corners and spy on them as they enact ghostly banquets and sinister masques. My sister had already seen the show once, a fortnight earlier, when her friend had emerged at the end enthusing about a naked rave in a secret room. This time she was determined to find it for herself. Once again, she didn't. Neither of us did.
I wasn't in the least surprised. The truth is, I am awful at site-specific theatre, promenade theatre, immersive theatre, any kind of theatre, really, which doesn't involve sitting in a seat and watching without moving or talking. It's not for want of trying. Since Punchdrunk kicked off the trend for "Choose Your Own Adventure"-style plays with their brilliant Masque of the Red Death at Battersea Arts Centre in 2007, I have been to shows in every imaginable location, from beach huts to nightclubs, playgrounds to camper vans, and been cast in any number of roles. I've posed as the new girl at school, a hotel guest and have sat through countless faux job interviews. I've been illegally trafficked in the back of lorry and trapped in a basement brothel. I've shivered around too many railway tunnels to mention imagining them to be a damp Denmark/Hitchcock movie/dystopia. I've even had a play about an Avon Lady staged in my own sitting room.
And yet, I still lack flair. My latest flop came at dreamthinkspeak's new show, In the Beginning Was the End, which takes place in the back corridors of Somerset House in London. Before the show, a solemn usher hands out a laminated sheet warning of low lighting, a lack of toilets, nudity and possible claustrophobia. They might have added SSA, or Site Specific Angst, that woozy, stomach-clenching feeling you get when you embark on a show and have no idea what is going on, what your part in it is supposed to be, where you should put your coat and when it will end.
In fact, In the Beginning is one of the more guided experiences. There is a fairly clear route to follow and no secret rave (I don't think). There is still, though, a fair amount of aimless wandering, of staring into empty rooms and gingerly opening cupboard doors in the vague hope there might be a performance lurking within. There is still the very real risk of watching an usher for ages in case he turns out to be a Main Character (he didn't). Pace is another potential pitfall. "The average journey time takes approximately 70 minutes, but you may go at your own pace," states the laminated sheet. And if you get round in 55 minutes? Does that make you a bad audience member?
It's difficult to give yourself over to theatre when your over-riding emotion is anxiety. Anxiety that you're not seeing the crucial key that will unlock the piece; that you're looking too hard at something that means nothing; that you might have to get involved at any moment; or that you're missing out on something more exciting happening in another room. Too many times I have left shows only to discover that the best bit was a secret room I never found or a whispered encounter in a hidden phone box to which I was never privy. The feeling is disappointment mingled, it has to be said, with relief.
Theatre that busts boundaries can be thrilling. Dreamthinkspeak's Cherry Orchard, set in a derelict department store, was a spine-shiveringly beautiful update. Roadkill which took Traverse audiences on a journey to a tenement alongside a trafficked girl was harrowing and powerful. An evening being chased around The Pleasance by zombies in The Institute was one of the most frightening Halloweens I've ever had. In these cases, being immersed enhanced the show.
Too often, though, the experience is disorientating and audiences are expected to work harder than the cast in order to grasp the play. Some may enjoy the challenge: in New York, I saw people trying to talk to mute characters and elbowing their way into dance routines. That's the problem – audiences are far harder to direct than actors. Amateurs are unpredictable; they might go wild with solipsistic glee, thrusting themselves centre stage, or they might shrivel up with shyness.
I'm not a natural performer; some might say that's why I'm a critic. Certainly if I had to review my own performance in these shows, I'd be a two-star at best. So I'll keep trying, but in the meantime I'd rather leave it to the professionals to take me on a journey, preferably without me having to leave my seat.
'In the Beginning Was the End', Somerset House, London (020 7452 3000; nationaltheatre.org.uk) to 30 March
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