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

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there