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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism