Friday, 9 April 2010

your nation loves you

It's early last Friday evening. I've cycled down to Waterloo Station and am sitting next to my bike outside a door on Leake Street. Leake Street isn't really a street, it's a tunnel under the station. One of the best kinds of tunnels: every inch of wall space is covered in graffiti but it's lit well so it feels more like a street art installation rather than a scary place you don't want to walk down. I'm waiting to go inside the tunnels under the station for a site-specific theatrical production called Your Nation Loves You, produced by the young company, :DELIRIUM.

Like pop-up shops, pop-up galleries, pop-up everything, site-specific theatre is all the rage these days. Though plenty of companies do site-specific theatre or theatre in odd places, it is perhaps Punchdrunk who has done the most to bring site-specific and interactive theatre into the mainstream. I'm not really the person to comment on Punchdrunk as I've only been to see one of their productions, It Felt Like A Kiss, at the Manchester Festival last year, which didn't really hit my t(heatre)-spot. The rather unfortunate thing about Punchdrunk's popularity is that every other theatre company doing anything remotely similar gets weighed and measured according to their standards, and is invariably found to be wanting. 

So what if YNLY is a promenade piece of theatre that takes place in a tunnel. Let it exist on its own merits instead of comparing it to Punchdrunk or to Shunt. Yes, it makes you as a reviewer look clever and clued up and plugged in, but it doesn't give enough credit to the sheer amount of work that went in to the production of this play.  Not that it was a perfect production, far from it, but it's the debut performance by a brand new company and everyone screws things up a bit along the way. So let me briefly say that with such a fine story, brilliant location, and talented cast, the last thing a production like this needs is interpretive dancing. I'm crusing happily along the highway of pathos, when bam, you hit me with a totally disorienting slow-motion dance break. Not the greatest of ideas, but I don't want to dwell on the hiccups when the core concept of the production was ripe as a peach.

Contrary to my now-normalised modus operandi of not spoiling things for lovely readers by 'reviewing' them, there's no need to keep secrets this time because this particular production only ran for four nights, so if you didn't see it, you ain't gonna. 

Conceptually, YNLY has a strong starting point in that they've got an amazing, atmospheric space. So what are they going to do with it? YNLY imagines that 12 unlucky bastards have been plucked off the streets of various UK cities and dropped into the tunnels by Big Brother, sort of a humanity's last hope for survival in the face of an impending 28 days later type crisis. 

The brilliant thing about the production is that you don't realise there are 12 people in the cast until about half way through. I was talking to one of the guys after the show and he told me that half of the audience get a text 30 minutes before the show directing them to an alternate entrance to the tunnels. So half of the audience follow six characters who are resigned to the fact that they are humanity's hope for the future if it does indeed all go horribly wrong (this was the group I followed). The other six characters are supposedly less idealistic/keen on living indefinitely in scarry tunnels and spend the duration of the play trying to escape/make connection with the outside world via an answering machine that doesn't seem to work. There's a little bit of asking the audience to suspend disbelief and go with the fact that a group of people might somehow be able to make contact with the world above via an answering machine, but whatever, I'm at the theatre. This is where I go to get exposure to different realities. I'm going with suspended disbelief. 

What really struck me as I left is how remarkably easy it is to manipulate an audience, for I'm certain the people who spent their time with the six characters trying to escape felt just as strong of an attachment to their group as I did to mine. This is partly because the acting was fantastic. I mean really, really fantastic. The characters were wonderful and so well developed: the ring-leader of the group has a near obsessive immaginary friendship/mentor thing going on with a makeshift projection of Winston Churchill, the kid from Sheffield who cheers up immensely when he gets his hands on a compass so that he always knows where North, i.e. Sheffield, is.  One of my favourite scenes in the whole play was when these two characters pass the time by pretending to heat food up in a microwave.  Of course the microwave doesn't work and god only knows how they came across a microwave in the tunnels of doom, the scene bears no actual relevance to the plot, but it's so warmly affectionate and funny plus it shows serious strength of direction that such a scene made it into the final production.

Both sets of actors and audience members are brought together at the show's conclusion for a rather strange scene in which all the actors leave a message (for posterity?) on the voicemail machine. This scene probably shouldn't have worked. It doesn't really make sense or properly close off the play's narrative, but I have a good immagination and I'm perfectly comfortable with filling in my own interpretation - I don't need to be spoonfed. In any event, I felt such attachment to my characters that I was completely swept up in the emotion of the scene. The closing moment in which the ring-leader of my group was the last to leave a message but ultimately refused to do so because it was against his convictions - he just couldn't bring himself to do it - was so powerful and so unbelievably moving that I was just blown away. This is the power of site-specific productions: total engrossment in the world of the characters. If done well, it's like being that fly on the wall of a documentary. A great site can't do all the work though, so it's a huge credit to the company for pulling off the production with such elegance. Not that it was flawless - far from it - but it was ambitious and clearly crafted with care. Sign up to their mailing list. Go and see whatever they do next, because it this production was anything to judge by, they're only going to get better.

No comments: