As digital content seems to reach a saturation point, and new ways of telling stories are sought out, the frontier of immersive theatre is a brave new world of possibility. Sitting somewhere between art installation, theatre, and real-life do-it-yourself adventure storytelling, immersive theatre can be created on as large or as intimate a scale as the space and resources allow, with the intention that no two experiences are identical. British theatre company Punchdrunk are game-changing pioneers in this scene, and their work is nothing short of phenomenal, bringing “cinematic [levels] of detail” to large-scale installations in often unexpected locations.
Part of The Rocks’ Village Bizarre festival, Mongrel Mouth’s The Age of Entitlement is a home-grown piece of immersive theatre set in a turn of the century world where the audience is given semi-autonomy to wander in and out of rooms, building the (a?) narrative from the fragments and scenes we glimpse. You are invited to follow a character and/or storyline, because the ending is purportedly in the audience’s hands every night. The Age of Entitlement is about power, wealth, ambitions and love, about trying to achieve your dreams in the face of adversity, and how even the strongest and best of intentions can be corrupted. Expanding upon the format of and experiences gained from their first show earlier this year, The Silence Came, Mongrel Mouth’s new production has flair and verve, but there still feels like there is a way to go before the concept is perfected to the degree of unpredictability which the form demands.
Set in a world where corsets and top hats sit side-by-side with suffragettes and ardent anarchists, it feels at times rather like a steampunk adventure, and this is helped immeasurably by the superb atmosphere created by Jo Parkin and Shane Roberston’s sets which utilise the building’s quirks and idiosyncrasies whilst maintaining a freshness and uniqueness which is not hampered by the building’s narrowness. While Alex PF Jackson’s costumes enhance the world of the story, there could perhaps be a little more cohesion in the visual look of the world, to ground it in one specific time (fantastical or not), as the Converse boots perhaps don’t work as well as perhaps was intended. The production’s script could also have been tighter and more grounded in one period, as phrases such as ‘shut up,’ ‘idiot,’ and the frequent use of ‘fuck’ didn’t sit seamlessly within the visual world. Christopher Page’s lighting and David Herrero’s sound, however, worked splendidly in the intimate venue, lending it an air of magic and forward-motion which drove the story on when it began to lag in parts.
Unfolding across two time spans separated by twenty years – the past and present, or perhaps present and future – the later time period, the one we find ourselves in at the piece’s conclusion, is designated by pale white faces, red-rimmed eyes, and it seems to obviously different to be thoroughly effective; perhaps if the overt make-up was abandoned in favour of a more subtle and inconspicuous approach, the story might work better. While there’s nothing wrong with the story as it stands per se, there also needs to be a degree of trust invested in the audience’s – or, rather, the participants’ – intelligence; don’t spell it out, if you’ve done your job in building the world, we will piece it together sooner or later.
Apparently structured so it is effectively a ‘choose-your-own adventure’-type piece of theatre, there is perhaps some way to go in the show’s development and implementation before this is fully achieved. Sure, you might be able to choose how you get to the end point, but it feels rather fixed as opposed to mercurial and changeable. Immersive theatre, by its nature, is a living breathing fully-interactive installation, where characters operate with a degree of license to improvise and interact with their audience whilst still fulfilling their narrative function within the story’s world. In The Age of Entitlement, with perhaps one or two exceptions, the performers do not interact with the audiences, do not fully draw us into their world, and as such, the live nature of the show, the very unpredictability which it should thrive on, is slightly lost. Sure, we – the audience – voice our support when it is asked for, but there still feels like a divide between performers and audience, the very thing immersive theatre actively tries to break down.
Also, there are a few problems with sound balances – from scenes and sound design throughout the building – which interfere with the narrative’s cohesion and intelligibility. Scenes go on for longer than they perhaps should, after one or more participants have left the room for another, and we are unsure as to whether what we are left watching is ‘on-script’ or just a free rhapsody on a theme. Is the idle chatter between performers meant to be overheard, meant to be part of the performance; is every room ‘live’ at every moment throughout the night? Or are there ‘dark’ spaces as the story and night progresses which are intended and necessitated by the narrative; are we invited to go in them even if they are empty? There are also several problems with the dynamics between characters, in either or both of the time frames, which when clarified – volume-wise, as well as in terms of performance and focus – could make the performance stronger and more engaging.
As a second production (or first, if you’re being pedantic) in a notoriously difficult form of theatre, The Age of Entitlement is a bold and colourful undertaking, by turns thought provoking and engaging, and it is certainly worth investigating. There are several aspects which could be improved or clarified in further productions, but their passion and commitment to developing this capricious and potentially volatile form of theatre is impressive.
Theatre playlist: 79. Opening Titles, from Oliver Twist, Martin Phipps