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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The Magna Carta was good for humans - but even better for fish

“All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast.” 

It may look like a minor clause in one of the greatest historical documents of all time, but the insertion into Magna Carta of this single clause – “All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast” – had as benevolent an effect as any of its better-known demands.

Up until then, the king’s weirs, while they maximised his own catch, had prevented far too many fish from returning to their spawning grounds upriver, and so had a disastrous impact, especially on salmon populations. Within a few years of Magna Carta the rivers were teeming with life. So much salmon was available that at the height of the season monks at some abbeys begged their abbots for greater variety in the kitchen. Yet increased salmon stocks benefited many abbeys and the fish became an important part of the economy. In 1109, Lenton Priory in Nottingham was granted the right to the first draught of fish from the Chilwell spring each year, a privilege that helped sustain it as one of the richest monastic houses in England.

This all changed with the Industrial Revolution. After a golden age, during which even Henry VIII sacrificed 500 marks of personal income a year in further restrictions on fish weirs, centuries of goodwill towards England’s rivers were overturned in a decade as waterways throughout the land were obstructed and polluted regardless of consequence. Fish populations plummeted and vital food sources were lost in the toxic soup that the salmon now had to navigate (for the mature fish, an exhausting climb to their high spawning grounds and, for the vulnerable smolts, the outward journey back to the sea). From having been so plentiful that a hungry monk could groan at the sight of freshly grilled cutlets, the Atlantic salmon has now joined the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species.

Now, wild salmon face a new challenge – from other salmon. Or rather, they face a threat that we post-industrial human beings have introduced: the fish farm. Having seen what the Industrial Revolution did to our river life, people have responded by trying to replace fish supplies using industrial methods, creating cramped conditions, leading to heavy infestations of lice, highly distasteful disease-management regimes and, some would argue, considerable cruelty.

It makes no sense: just as it made no sense to pollute our land for the profit of a few back in the 19th century. What does make sense is to work on cleaning up and unblocking our rivers to allow salmon to re-establish themselves, as they have done every time societies allowed them room to grow.

All across the country, local river trusts and national organisations such as Salmon & Trout Conservation UK are working to re-create the healthy salmon stocks these islands once enjoyed, as consumer groups work to shame supermarkets into disclosing the sources of their farmed salmon and pressurise retail outlets to use only those farms that follow best practice. Anyone shopping for fish at such establishments can join in: all it takes is a mobile phone and a list of acceptable sources (S&TC UK offers useful advice on how to get started).

On the other hand, farmed fish will always be farmed fish – all too often a grey, fatty piece of doctored flesh that I wouldn’t want on my table.

So, why not boycott altogether? There are plenty more fish in the sea. But we Brits love our cod, our haddock and, of course, our salmon, no matter how grey; so we want them all the time, no matter the season. In earlier times, with a wider range of seasonal treats to look forward to, things were much better, not only for us, but also for the health of our rivers. 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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