Immersive theatre and the anxiety of choice

Yes, you might discover a secret orgy in a hidden room or go on a desperate quest for a missing ring, but at heart, immersive theatre is about turning the traditional power dynamics of actors and audience on their head.

An hour into Sleep No More, I was sure that I was about to die. Shortly after I checked into New York's McKittrick Hotel – the deceptively realistic setting of Punchdrunk's immersive Rebecca-Macbeth mashup – an eerily alluring woman in a floor-length red satin gown (Hecate, I later discovered), had singled me out as I wandered, unspoiled and suffering from Hitchcock-appropriate vertigo, into the dilapidated Deco bar where she was performing a smirking lip-sync of “Is that All There Is?” After staring me down – ensuring that I was suitably compliant – she led me into a private boudoir: removing my mask and feeding me a vial of tears.

Then things began to get strange. Hecate seized hold of my wrists, leading me into a pitch-black forest, forcing my hands against a series of branches, telling me the haunting story of a child lost in a wood. Her hair fell into my face; her hands were tight against my shoulders, her lips close enough for me to feel her breath against my cheek. I wondered – half-dazed – if I was being initiated, or perhaps murdered; was I expected to spend the rest of the performance wandering the space, unmasked, in collusion with Hecate's subservient witches? Instead she wept in my arms, her nails digging into my skin, and my fear gave way to a stronger impulse: to comfort her. Hecate entrusted me with a mission – to retrieve a stolen ring – a quest that sent me into the depths of the McKittrick as I dug up graveyards, rifled through hotel lockers, crawled through brambles, increasingly desperate to dry her tears.

"Is theatre becoming too immersive?” asks the Independent's Alice Jones in a recent review of dreamthinkspeak's new In the End Was the Beginning at Somerset House, declaring that she would “rather leave it to the professionals to take me on a journey” than experience the overwhelming anxiety of choice with which audience members in an immersive piece are presented. It is true, certainly, that the device can be overused, using audience members' natural disorientation as a substitute for real artistry.

But in a show like Sleep No More, the relationship between actor and audience takes on a thrilling, even erotic, dynamic. In traditional theatre, we as audience members are expected to be affected without affecting the action; we are objects, reactors, powerless to affect or alter what is happening onstage. Yet we are all too quick to forget that this powerlessness is itself an illusion. As anyone unfortunate enough to be seated next to an incessant chatterer knows, we can at any moment break the fourth wall: we can heckle, throw rotten vegetables, or simply walk out; we can speak the Deplorable Word that brings the whole world of the play crashing down.

Yet it wasn't until Hecate cornered me in that forest that I realised the extent of that power, or that responsibility. I wasn't only responsible for her lost ring; I was responsible for her – as a character and as a performer. Our emotional dynamic – me a nameless ghost of the McKittrick; she the witch-queen I was bound to serve – mirrored our theatrical one. I was both in thrall to her (not difficult; Elizabeth Romanski's performance remains among the most compelling I've seen on any stage) and painfully, powerfully aware of how vulnerable she was making herself to me.

It's hardly surprising that Sleep No More's dedicated fans – some of whom admit to seeing the show over fifty times – describe their encounters in terms that echo an erotic pas de deux. (A visit to super-fan tumblr ScorchedtheSnake, which reblogs a number of show recaps, casts up plenty of “racing hearts” and passionate declarations of fealty to the show's most popular characters.) Darla Gutierrez, who blogs about the show at the tumblr fearsdomakeustraitors, savours the “power rush” she gets from being present in the McKittrick. Yet such freedom, fan Meg Brophy notes, arises within the context of a relationship that feels – at least for those three hours – reciprocal. “Anytime things get personal, I do get very vulnerable...but the way the actors treat you in a one-on-one, regardless of which one-on-one it is, they do nothing but respect you and care for you.”

For me, as for so many of Sleep No More's dedicated admirers, the power of immersive theatre lies not in the discovery of a secret orgy in a hidden room (though, four visits in, I've seen more than my fair share of naked men gyrating while covered in blood) or racking up rare scenes, but in confronting the very “anxiety” Jones names – the responsibility of “working harder” – or, at least, as hard – as the cast to build and sustain the intoxicating world of the McKittrick. My encounters with Hecate, however illusory, take the traditional power dynamics inherent in “end on” theatre and turn them on their head. Without the safety net of distance – emotional or physical – the theatrical experience becomes one of inter-subjectivity rather than objectification. At the McKittrick, I have seduced and been seduced, comforted and been comforted by a pregnant Lady Macduff, fallen in love with an andrognyous witch only to dress him and dry his tears. And I have spent twelve panicked, urgent hours during which nothing in the world seemed as immediate – or as real – as my quest for Hecate's ring.

Four visits later, I'm planning a fifth, sixth, seventh. I keep my ticket – a cleverly designed playing-card – on my desk at home, to remind me that the story is not yet over. After all, I still haven't found that bloody ring.

 

The action at Sleep No More.

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue