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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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.