‘Immersive theatre’. Is there any more terrifying combination of words in the English language?
I’m deeply distrustful of immersive theatre for reasons which, I now realise, go to the most Freudian depths of my infantile psyche. As blogging is cheaper than therapy, I shall now share them with you, and tell you how they make me feel.
- There’s some small part of me that wants theatre to always take place under a proscenium arch, and preferably emerge as if by magic from behind a thick red and gold curtain. I know the precise local theatre curtain that did this to me as a child. It’s also the reason that if I’m honest I think any set that doesn’t look like a wood panneled library in an Agatha Christie whodunit isn’t a real set at all.
- I hate audience participation to a pathological degree. If I think there’s even the merest possibility of it happening I’ll book tickets at the very back of the upper circle, or, ideally, in a different theatre.
- I just want to be told a story at night time. Is that so much to ask?
I’ve hated everything I’ve ever seen by Punchdrunk. In both Sleep No More in New York and The Drowned Man in London I just found myself wandering round the beautifully designed environments, desperately seeking some kind of story, increasingly frustrated that whoever I followed they just seemed to have a fight or do some interpretive dance on a sofa, apropos of nothing. I like Secret Cinema (to which Spectators Guild, producers of Venice Preserv’d, has been compared), but in terms of narrative it rides on the pigtails of well loved films, and is at its best when bringing to life and expanding upon the world the film provides rather than trying to tell new stories in the chaos.
As a rational adult, I suppose my problem with immersive theatre has usually been that it’s a lot of sound and fury in the service of very little – a fun, even exhilarating experience with nothing at its core.
Venice Preserv’d is a very different approach to immersive theatre, taking as its basis as weighty a theatrical text as you could wish for – Thomas Otway‘s 1682 tragedy – and building a world around it. It promises to transform Greenwich into the serene republic of Venice, and breathe new life to this rarely performed classical oddball. Does it work? Not entirely. But its failures are often noble, some of its successes sublime, and there are tantalising glimpses of how, a couple of productions from now, this talented company could achieve something really very special.
It doesn’t help that the evening starts with a ‘carnivale’, leading audience members from a meeting point at the Cutty Sark to the vast wharf building in deepest darkest Deptford where the main action takes place. While this 30 minute walk could have – should have – been an opportunity to immerse us in the shadowy world of Venice, instead it’s a poorly thought out, cheap feeling, slapstick affair – more dodgy than dogey – that’s tonally and qualitatively at odds with everything that follows. It serves to immerse you in nowhere so much as, well, Deptford – the highlight for me being a glimpse of a newly opened Waitrose. We’re repeatedly told that we’re now entering Venice, yet at one point a strolling actor asked us ‘What are these noisy things that clatter down the streets? We do not have these in Venice’. Consistency is essential in creating believable worlds (something Punchdrunk, to their credit, always achieve), but it was lacking here.
Things improve considerably when you arrive at the wharf. Once the play proper begins, it takes place in 5 or 6 different locations inside and outside the building. The first scene, in which a plot to assassinate the senators of Venice is hatched, is played on a platform overlooking a fine stretch of the river Thames. Vast and oddly peaceful, drenched (at least during the uncharacteristically beautiful sunset when I saw it) in golden light, if you squint a bit you could almost imagine yourself in Venice. More interestingly though, the most dominating feature of this docklands backdrop are the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. The dark pyramid atop HSBC’s headquarters blinks sinisterly as our protagonists declaim
Reign, reign ye monarchs that divide the World,
Busy rebellion, ne’er will let you know
Tranquility and happiness like mine;
Like gawdy ships th’ obsequious billows fall
And rise again, to lift you in your pride;
They wait but for a storm and then devour you
This piquant modern colouring is reinforced early on by some new contemporary dialogue added to help ease the transition between locations. However, after a few scenes these additions abruptly disappear – a shame because they’re well written and genuinely complement the text, and are delivered with raw, magnetic energy by the intriguing Dwane Walcott (who I’d definitely like to see more of in future).
This disjointedness is characteristic of the evening as a whole. After a couple of exterior locations, the action moves inside, to what are basically two large, traditionally arranged theatre auditoriums where this becomes, in essence, traditionally staged theatre. There are sporadic attempts to involve the audience which are fun and engaging enough, but things then quickly settle back into largely passive spectatorship. Later, for the play’s climax, we’re broken out of this setup again, and rewarded with an extremely involving, simple but emotionally effective ending.
While each of these different stagings work in their own way, the overall journey the audience is taken on is uneven and uncertain, which also makes the evening seem longer and more drawn out than it needs to.
That’s not to say that there aren’t considerable treasures to be had along the way. The design is beautiful, from the costumes to the clever sets, to atmospheric sound design and haunting use of projection. And one area where this production’s hype delivers is in its casting. These are indeed young classical actors to watch. Ashley Zhangazha is an impassioned, engaging and sympathetic Jaffier (even if at times, like so many other actors playing Shakespeare, he does suffer from the tendency to take on a flatly pleading tone). Ferdinand Kingsley as Pierre gives us the full journey from raffish rogue to unexpected hero with complete clarity and strength throughout. And Jessie Buckley as Belvidera is just extraordinary. It took me a while to realise I recognised her from Lloyd Webber talent show I’d Do Anything, but I’m happy to report the acting lessons with Denise Van Outen she was subjected to as part of that charade have left no lasting damage. She brings enormous energy and life to the part, but also subtlety, connecting every word of the dialogue, even at its most melodramatic, to honest emotion. Her climactic moments are mesmerising.
This production then, like the selection of ‘Venetian’ canapes you can buy on a little wooden boat for £8, is a decidedly mixed experience. It’s certainly true that, even in such a radical production, what’s likely to linger with you is the most traditional aspect of all: damn fine acting. But it’s also true that the parts here are greater than their sum. There’s enough that’s exciting about this way of doing theatre – immersive, with a purpose – that I hope this company will build on what they’ve achieved here, perhaps choose a more appropriate text as their basis, and deliver something that more completely marries the old and the new next time.
Venice Preserv’d runs until 8th June 2014. Learn more and book