The known quantity is a factor that London theatre has a depressing habit of unduly relying upon. Think of all those screen-to-stage adaptations that angle to clean up at the box office by feeding audiences with the safely familiar or the slew of preview pieces that these days excessively prime punters on what to anticipate.
To counter this culture, the eminent playwright Caryl Churchill came up with the idea of “Surprise Theatre” which was adopted as a strand of the “Open Court” season at the Royal Court in the summer. On Monday and Tuesday evenings, people were invited to experience a unique, one-off event about which they had had no advance warning.
The attempt to take audiences off-guard in an atmosphere unclouded (so to speak) by clued-up expectation is carried much further now at the Lyric Hammersmith where, during the current rebuild, the artistic director Sean Holmes has seized the opportunity to initiate a bracingly iconoclastic 8-month, 7-show experiment – with a 20-strong ensemble of actors and writers – in breaking the accepted conventions of making theatre.
The shows are advertised by number rather than by title and, as you enter the auditorium you could be making a blind date with a classic, an adaptation, or a completely new play. That's if, in the age of social media, you've managed to retain your innocence. Because of a clash with another opening, I fetched up at the second performance of Show 1, having sedulously avoided, with some difficulty, glancing at any spilt beans. People wanting to play the Lyric's game should therefore read no further.
If it's disappointing that the play turns out to be Buchner's oft-performend Woyzeck (here in David Harrower's adaptation), I was held by Holmes's stripped-back, circus-like, gender- and colour-blind production which, as in his fine work with Filter Theatre, aims at a disconcertingly non-literal, knockabout fidelity to the spirit rather than to the letter of the original.
The proceeding are dominated here by the nerve-racking recurrent image of Billy Seymour's soldier protagonist running round in obsessive circles, clad in grubby vest and underpants and clamped to a leash. The company clamber in and out of animal costumes and it's characteristic of the show's stage language that Katherine Pearce's Marie flirts with the sax-playing cross-cast Drum Major (Charlotte Josephine) via a shambolic rendition of “Big Spender” as she struggles to extricate herself from a tiger outfit.
In my opinion, though, the season will serve its most salutary purpose when it starts to field brand new work with the author initially unidentified and pitches audiences into territory that is truly without sign-posts.
To November 9, in rep; 0208 741 6850