Immersive theatre: take us to the edge, but don’t throw us in
Published on the Guardian Theatre Blog, 07.04.2010
In 1997, there was a monsoon in Earl’s Court. In fact, there was a monsoon every hour, on the hour for about a fortnight, but no one got wet. Instead, we stood and watched from behind a barrier as gallon after gallon of water cascaded down from the roof of the Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre as part of the Ideal Home Show. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in wanting to hop the fence and dive in. Not content with watching, I wanted to feel its force, its warmth, its wetness.
That desire to experience more fully is at the heart of immersive theatre, which can place us in situations that we are unlikely to encounter in our everyday lives, rather than merely placing them before us. It can treat us to the experiences of someone else’s lifetime. It stands to reason, then, that immersive theatre might be well-suited to tackle the extremities of human existence. It we can step into Faust’s study for ourselves, why not – as Jonathan Holmes attempted last year – post-Katrina New Orleans? Why not place us at the centre of the Kursk disaster, as Sound and Fury have done?
Only, of course, they haven’t. Kursk only works because it is smart enough not to situate us on the Kursk itself, but on a nearby British submarine. Watching it, I was momentarily convinced that the Young Vic lurched on its axis as the sub dived. I could swear that I felt the air tighten in my lungs as the pressure increased, but I would never have accepted the danger of its running out. Thanks to Dan Jones’s savvy sound design we can hear the distant bangs of desperation from the Kursk crew, without actually having to invest in sharing their deadly predicament.
Yet, there have been several productions in recent years not content with such a distance. Punchdrunk chased us down a corridor with a chainsaw; Slung Low unleashed vampires to attack us; Badac Theatre screamed in our faces, ordered us to strip and marched us into what they told us was a gas chamber.
Theatre requires an imaginative leap and, where too much is asked of us, resistance is inevitable. Where theatre admits its own status as such, it cannot make us fear for our lives; any production that stubbornly refuses to accept this is bound to fail.
The best that theatre can manage is to make us doubt our safety. Blast Theory’s Kidnap, a 1998 production that saw two members of the public abducted and held hostage for 48 hours after entering a lottery to win the experience, could not fully replicate the experience of a hijacking, as prior consent had been given. The so-called winners were aware of the event’s construction. However, given the intensity and length of the experience and the level of the company’s commitment, there must have been moments of doubt. What if this wasn’t the show? What if, by some strange coincidence, this was real?
Theatre must accept its own limitations. While it can push at them, to overstep them is to shatter possibility. If it is to place us within a given situation, it must do so fully. That means, for the time being at least, there are experiences it cannot provide. However, where it treads carefully, immersive theatre can replicate them. It may not be able to take us to hell, but it can force us to feel the heat.
Photograph: Sound & Fury