Scene It: Immortal, avant-garde theatre in the Castle

December 18, 2017

Humankind is fascinated with death, more specifically how to live longer, look younger, and ultimately escape death. The idea(l) of immortality is very alluring. As a theme, it is a creative playground without boundaries – a candy shop for any theatre visionary. When then paired with immersive theatre – the theatre style that professes its experience to be almost boundaryless – it seems a match made in heaven. So, walking into the Standing O presented Immortal, at the site-specific dream that is the Castle of Good Hope, expectation was high and excitement very real.


When, as in Immortal, immortality is juxtaposed to loss as a trap rather than a blessing, it begs for a setting and a story that draws the audience in. Your first clue that things are not what they seem is your greeting, upon arrival, by the two enigmatic swings (Clinton Small and Maria Vos). They invite you into the illusion with the gift of masks for anonymity. They whisper of a rumour that a man, The Drifter (Kai Luke Brümmer), who knows much of immortality, was seen entering the mansion and then never seen again.


Entering the unknown (in concept and style), which leads you into a multi-verse realm where worlds and time merge so that death apparently has no dominion, what should audiences expect of Immortal as immersive theatre?

Immersive theatre has been likened to, and arguably even conceptually influenced by, open-world or free-roaming video games. This freedom is not without rules or narrative, even though the player (or audience member) does become a character with a degree of free will. Elaborating on this comparison in style, Thomas McMullan (The Guardian) describes the required structure best:


“[I]mmersive theatre refers to any production in which audience members are put into the scene, and maybe even given bodily involvement in the action. Sometimes the audience is ushered from one place to another, sometimes they’re allowed to explore the space of the play all on their own… channelling the audience through their scenes much like a game will channel the player through a level. It’s clear the two art-forms tell stories in very similar ways… Walls are a good place to start…, a game designer needs to erect walls; walls that inevitably form into corridors… As you run from one part of the sprawling… facility to another you choose…, you decide…, but you are inexorably funnelled down a path to a specified end.”


Adding to this understanding, Lyn Gardner (The Guardian) cautions that immersive theatre is more than “[s]tanding around watching a show in a room”. It must draw you in and make you feel part of the story. In essence, when done right, true immersive productions find “ways that make sense of why the audience is present at all and allowing them to play their part”. Gardner opines that in this context the creation of intimacy is not enough for theatre immersion. A story framework (what McMullan figuratively would refer to as the narrative walls) is then the element that elevates the experience to more than a theatrical art installation. The writers and director have to empower the performers and make sense of the audience presence by constructing such imaginary funnelling walls by making full use of the creative structures and design for immersion into a variable yet cohesively fluid narrative. Collaboration, rather than traditional direction by instruction, is thus key in the execution of this difficult task.


With this understanding in mind, one can then look to theatre critic, Jonathan Mandell's, 5 style points against which to measure theatre productions like Immortal, that are billed as immersive:


1) “Immersive theatre tends to stimulate all five senses—sight and sound, as with conventional theatre pieces, but also touch, and frequently taste and even smell.”

2) “These shows double as an art installation and hands-on museum.”

3) “Immersive shows make individual audience members feel as if they have had a uniquely personal experience, that they are not just part of the crowd.”

4) “At the same time, there is always an aspect of an immersive show that emphasizes the social, through playful interaction or inexplicable tasks, often in small groups.”

5) “For immersive theatre to work, in my view, a show has to have a story to tell—and it has to have respect for that story.”


Keeping Mandell’s points in mind, and having recently seen the very successful Les Enfants Terribles London production of Alice’s Adventures Underground (which had all 5 style points covered), I excitedly stepped into Immortal, open to the idea of getting timelessly lost in three floors and 13 rooms.


When the two swings – who mystify as they suggestively infiltrate the masked group of audience  members who can outnumber them 2:60 in a maximum capacity performance – lure you through the mansion entrance and into the mysterious otherworldly realm where time (literally and figuratively) is suspended, they reveal but two rules: keep your mask on and don’t speak.

Once inside, you first meet The Heiress (Shannyn Fourie). Sight and sound senses are immediately triggered in a room that gives a clever design nod to a mad tea party. The mental state of The Heiress is exposed through her movement from parlour to bedroom, highlighting a conflicting sense of opulence and deprivation. Here one then definitely finds intimacy (almost intrusion) through observation. I eagerly awaited that moment, that next degree of theatre, that feeling of becoming part of the story; when I would become more than just an observer in a room. 


And so I wait, standing silently on the sideline, watching how the feigned serenity of The Heiress is eerily upset by the hissing presence of the ever moving Sisters of Fate (Alice Kok, Liezel Swartz and Lee van der Merwe), while The Butler (Glenn Swart) tries his best to maintain order, regardless of the interference of the The Alchemist (Craig Morris).


As I later wander off, intentionally avoiding the hissing that only moves around me with no interaction – even though I actively stare the Fates down, daring participation in the absence of speech – finding my way to the The Drifter’s dimension and the The Alchemist’s workshop, neither of them there to interact with. After my inquisitive nature sees me smelling bottles and paging through books, which admittedly did provide some food for thought, I eventually again take up my role as spectator to the whims of the Sisters of Fate.


They dance around, toying with the life-lines of the characters who apparently move past each other in  overlapping dimensions, though remain worlds apart even though they seem intrinsically linked by the sands of time found a room filled with an apparent infinity of sand flowing from a huge, impressive hour glass. Their telling movements in that moment reminding me of a quote by the character Ephram from the TV Series Everwood: “Plans are like candy to the fates. The only thing you can ever be sure of is nothing ever goes the way you imagined.” 

The plan that is Immortal is quite enticing in its nostalgic merging of feelings and visuals, but the immersive execution is perhaps not fated to take form as imagined. This is through no fault of the performers who in their timeless atire pour heart and soul into every move made by their predominantly silent characters in a divinely detailed setting. 


In this instance, Immortal perhaps accentuates one aspect of the gaming comparison too much. Instead of setting up a few storyline funnelling scenarios – with characters either staying in one area or moving on only once their scene (gaming level) has been completed and closed through the audience's completion of a task – the storyline rather too heavily relies on gaming akin to easter eggs to get the audience immersively involved: The audience member who roams in search of clues instead of following the group can perhaps figure out why a baby is crying, why some rooms smell fragrant and alive, while others are moldy and held together with root like ropes. In turn, those who do follow the characters instead of roaming, risk not getting that full sensory experience, while those who roam may not catch the small snippets of speech in the performance.


One gets the impression that the design elements (set, costume and choreography) create a cohesive context, while the storyline to which the characters are bound, appear too often to steer the audience away from easter eggs that could easily be used to compliment the narrative. With this direction choice, audience members are maybe not given the full opportunity to piece together a complete (albeit personally influenced) picture of the experience. That at least was my observation when walking out of the show with fellow masked observers, myself commenting on messages in books and the rest of the hidden clues, with them responding, "oh, now that makes more sense". This highlights a narrative risk, namely that neither easter eggs nor actors can in isolation immerse an audience into the Immortal world(s).


The Immortal experience, although fascinating and definitely different to anything Cape Town has seen before, requires clarity of intent to elevate it from a fantastic living art exhibition to an all-inclusive theatre experience. It needs a clear story framework that invites exploration while encouraging (partially guided) participation, within which performers can facilitate the natural expression of their characters. 


Although, immersive theatre thrives on variable scenarios for audience indulgence, too many variables in a story carries the risk of them leaving, wondering what they just witnessed and what their reason for being present in a possibly too busy yet beautiful production was suppose to be. It may see them talking about the incredibly creative and impressive set by Nicola Mayer, the amazing presence of the performers (most notably that of Glenn Swart), aided by the daring choreography of Alice Kok, and the exquisite look of the Niall Griffin designed costumes (specifically that of The Heiress that accentuates her vulnerability, The Butler’s key-embellished jacket that reveals his guardianship role, and the dress of The Medium (Skye Russel) which adds an ethereal presence), without being able to tell you what story they themselves were a part of.


Strangely enough, because the production encourages the unsocial rather than the social, it acts as a kind of social experiment: It presents an opportunity to observe how people respond to uncomfortable situations. It is interesting to watch people see one character attack another without anyone doing anything. You realise that not one of them truly has the emotional freedom (regardless of the lack of physical constraints) to do anything to intervene, even if just by distracting the aggressor in a theatre context which in fact invites audience-character based improvisation. Perhaps these invisible emotional constraints are what the storyline must break through by means of some creative participatory exercise to unlock the full immersive effect of Immortal.


On a more practical note, and from the perspective of the immersive theatre I have seen, as well as knowledge accumulated through conversations with others who have similarly been privileged to see Les Enfants Terribles or punchdrunk productions, I am boldly going to add a point 6 to the Mandell style points:


6) Safety and security of the performers and patrons alike must be ensured, while the design integrity is continuously respected.


This point I make, because arriving at the venue and walking through the Immortal set some concerns came to mind. Firstly, no security check was done at all. Along with that that there was no cloak room at which audience members were obligated to safely deposit their bags and jackets. Why is this important? Without a security check, an audience member can bring in a dangerous object (i.e. pepper spray) that puts the performers and fellow free-roaming participants at risk. The presence of masked ushers (also responsible for resetting scenes) are not enough to ward off such dangers. Following on that, seeing as audience members can in the absence of story-funnelled scenarios, wander 100% freely into rooms when no one is even present, it is easy for someone to ‘collect’ as ‘souvenirs’ some small and crucial props by popping these into a handbag. This risk I realised when I found myself completely alone in The Alchemist’s workshop, sniffing potions bottles without a soul keeping watch.


Secondly, drinks should not be allowed, no matter how delicious the show-inspired Thirst Bar cocktails are (and they are quite impressive), because the all important designs, the crux of the world you enter, can be compromised if audience members even just every now and then accidentally spill a drink on a costume or set piece. Actually, it only takes one imagining a few people over the course of the run spilling drinks on the pristine sands of time to realise that such an allowance should never be made as it risks the design aesthetics and could deprive future audiences the fantastic experience of entering a beautifully constructed, breath-taking world of escapism.


Praise be given to any new theatre company like Standing O who dares to try something new and think outside the traditional creative box. But caution must also be taken when labelling the outside of that box as immersive theatre in this case, because you are measured against that self-assigned label. 


When entering the worlds of Immortal you will have more than one jaw-dropping moment, especially if you are an inquisitive soul instead of a passive follower. The escapism found in the design alone is enough to encourage a second or third return visit. Although not extremely interactive, It is fascinating to see the Fates play with time and lives, while the exceptionally talented actors bravely captivates the imagination of the masked onlookers, still finding a way to give form to a perhaps too mouldable a story. For this the cast  and design team deserve much applause.


You can see it at the Castle of Good Hope until 14 January 2018 by booking your tickets at Computicket. It is worth seeing purely on performance presence and phenomenal design standards.


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