By James Hadley in London
Stage a gothic fairytale about a wife-killer in an atmospheric London graveyard, with a brooding approaching thunderstorm adding that priceless serendipity factor, and you know you're onto a memorable theatre experience...
Promenade, site-specific theatre pieces are my favourite form of theatre, and I'm clearly far from the only one, with a selection of such immersive theatre pieces popping up around London currently.
I've seen three excellent examples in the last fortnight, and was going to write about the other two in this blog, but today's experience was one of the most entrancing examples I've experienced, so the other two will have to wait for next week.
One of the most delightful things about an outdoors site-specific production is that there are so many variable factors that no two performances are the same. And having God as your set and lighting designer has to be the biggest variable of the lot. The weather can wreck a show or give it production values to rival Hollywood's biggest budget. As I wandered into the atmospheric Brompton Cemetery (near Earl's Court in South West London) to view director Marianne Badrichani's 'Blue Beard', it was very much in the balance whether the elements were going to allow the production to go ahead at all. Walking down a tree-lined avenue with rows and rows of ornate Victorian gravestones and family tombs on either side, leaves fell in flurries as the wind gusted up. What had been a hot and blue-skied day had suddenly clouded over with the unmistakable frisson in the air of an approaching storm. Thunder and lightning in the graveyard - what could be more gothic? What could be more appropriate for a performance about a husband who keeps a collection of his murdered wives hidden in a locked room?
A mysterious woman in black Victorian riding dress stood by a black taxi cab in the middle of the avenue. She was to be our guide. Imagine our surprise, as an audience of about forty, when she invited us to begin our journey by getting into the taxi. One by one, we stepped in through one door and out the other side - a nice way of defining the beginning of our journey. We were ushered around four performers, standing like period-costumed statues with draperies over their heads and cutlery in their hands. As our guide introduced them individually, and simultaneously unveiled them (a nice variation on raising the curtain), they each burst into dinner conversation in affable Cockney accents. Characters had no sooner come to life than they were plunged into the story with the announcement of Blue Beard's interest in proposing to one of the two sisters, and all four were talking pros and cons over the top of each other.
Director Marianne Badichani, with her cast of six and dramaturg Sam Alexander, had adapted Charles Perrault's fairy tale into a deceptively stream-lined retelling. Typically fairytale costumes and sensibilities blended with contemporary wit, dramatic economy and modern accessories. It's no small feat to keep an audience of forty moving together at the right pace, keeping close together as a group so everyone can see and hear. This production used the site wonderfully by guiding the audience past little vignettes of each character going about their business individually among the gravestones - from the bride-to-be draped over a tomb as she wondered where the planes overhead were taking holidaymakers, to the mother of the family trudging home with her supermarket bags. Characters' defining traits and economic pressures on the family to befriend their rich neighbour were etched in with admirable brevity through scenes of often no more than two lines as the audience passed. There was a humorous anachronism in the details of the storytelling, which made these characters lively and easy to engage with. It was as if Roald Dahl and Jane Austen had collaborated on the adaptation.
Like all good site-specific works, our path through the space was as much the text of the performance as the spoken words were. The meander past vignettes among the overgrown gravestones led us back onto the main central avenue, where the Bride was prepared for her marriage to Blue Beard as a formal procession towards the imposing domed chapel at the far end of the avenue. Accompanied by a live violinist, the audience were now cast as the Bride's entourage of wedding guests - placed very literally at centrestage of a formal composition, with the other characters running along the colonnade on either side to feed in lines and comments from in between the columns. The wedding bouquet thrown but still no sign of the groom; you couldn't help but feel trepidation.
Then suddenly Blue Beard appeared before us. Not the intimidating tyrant I had expected, but across between an unruly rock star and an eighteenth century gentleman, hiding enigmatically behind his dark glasses and megaphone. With this he barked out a tour commentary to his estate, which included the Blues football stadium (Chelsea football stadium could be glimpsed next door). The cemetery felt like a set designed specifically for this production, so well married was the performance to the space. As if on cue, a mysterious looking staircase appeared heading down to (presumably) a crypt beneath the colonnade, wrought iron gates conspicuously padlocked. Of course, we could all delight in the foreshadowing of Blue Beard warning off the Bride's curiosity to explore this further.
Piece de resistance to our journey (and the performance) was our entry into the beautiful domed, circular chapel that stood in for Blue Beard's mansion. To the aroma of incense and the haunting melody of a Philip Glass composition, four veiled women danced in full skirts, their hands revolving gracefully as in classical Indian dance. The effect was evocative of the dead wives we all know are lurking in the background of the story, and this certainly charged the atmosphere with magic and ritual. Blue Beard gone on a business trip, it was not long before the Bride was prying into the forbidden chamber and discovering the dead wives. This was conveyed by video projection, which perhaps robbed it of some of its dramatic immediacy.
Dramatic urgency was effectively restored once Blue Beard had returned and charged his wife with finding the missing key to the forbidden chamber. Once again the audience were cast into the centre of the action through the Bride agitatedly dashing among us as we returned down a colonnade, urging us to help her search for keys within the colonnade. The children in the audience were noticeably wrapped up in the plot as they hopefully proferred various discovered keys to the Bride. As the urgency of the situation escalated, Blue Beard was no sooner confronting the Bride, than she was tearing off among the gravestones, and he running in pursuit of her. Ingeniously (or was it serendipitously) there was a general confusion at this point in terms of the audience's positioning, so that many were making their own way in pursuit when there were suddenly gunshots from a speedily advancing taxi cab. High drama! A real car and what seemed much like real gunshots in a public space.
As the taxi swung round the corner, the Bride's Mother was revealed to be behind the wheel. Our guide, in wry conclusion, assured us the Bride had collaborated with her family to ensure protection against Blue Beard, and they were all to live happily ever after thanks to her deceased husband's riches. This felt like a feminist revision replacing a warning about over-curious wives with a celebration of the merits of entrepreneurial curiosity and risk taking, but on research I find it's quite a truthful adaptation of the traditional fairy tale.
This was a lovely example of why immersive theatre is so accessible to new audiences. We didn't simply watch a play being performed, but were led on a journey, revealing new aspects of an intriguing space, beautiful positioning of actors within a 360 degrees setting, and surprising staging dynamics round each corner. We were in the middle of the performance, the protagonist's emotions infectious as she moved among us, feeling we were sharing her experience not through projection or identification with her, but through experiencing her story event by event for ourselves. The technical difficulties of constructing such an experience so that it moves smoothly are deceptively complex. It needs to weave a spell over the audience so that they enter into the right contract with the needs of the performance, and this production impressively managed to do just that.</p>