A LETTER FROM LONDON: Immersive Theatre Takes to the Streets and Mid-Day Performances Offer Classics for Lunch

By Ruth Leon
19 Sep 2013

Vanessa Kirby and John Heffernan in <i>Edward 11</i>.
Vanessa Kirby and John Heffernan in Edward 11.
Photo by Alastair Muir

The monthly missive from Across the Pond offers an insider's look into immersive theatre and a glance at lunchtime theatre in Great Britain.

I'm still a traditional theatre sort of person. Give me a play, some actors, a director, preferably something approximating a set and I'm happy. Even if it's not a very good play. But I'm trying valiantly to be the dog who does learn new tricks, the leopard who does change its spots, because there's no question that the most eye-catching theatre in London is the non-traditional stuff.

I was quite excited to see what New York calls 'immersive theatre' when I was there, but found it somewhat tame, given all the fuss people were making about how innovative it was. Sitting amongst the actors was just a baby-step from watching from the orchestra, and dancing with them in one scene or another was just a short distance from audience members being invited up on stage in One Man, Two Guv'nors.

Here, though, mainstream theatre is morphing into site-specific performances under London's bridges, shows where the audience is invited to meet in a location and are then directed to other parts of the city for unknown portions, on one occasion a play that was acted in an office suite across the street from the theatre which we watched from the theatre's rooftop, productions taking place in enormous but enclosed multi-room settings where the actors dance or mime different parts of the story and the audience, undirected, moves from room to room, from scene to scene, from snippet to snippet, to try to glean what is going on.

I got lost during this (physically and psychologically) and happened on the last scene first and never caught up with the plot. I was there for more than two hours and don't ever remember being so bored in a theatrical setting but, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that this one takes place in an old train warehouse and you couldn't buy a ticket for love nor money. I kept asking people who said they loved it what exactly they had loved but still couldn't work it out. All this, I remind you, is in the 'mainstream', not the 'experimental' theatre. So New York's 'immersive' theatre ain't got nothin' on London's.

On the other hand, when the really mainstream theatre, such as the National, tries something experimental, it often works. The current production of Christopher Marlowe's Edward 11, written just the other day in 1593 and set a mere 280 years earlier in 1307, uses cellphones, handheld video cameras, cigarette lighters and all the paraphanalia of contemporary life, including champagne bottles held by the neck (I'm sure Queen Isabella didn't really do that, did she?) to tell the story of a young King so besotted with his male lover that he destroys his kingdom and himself.


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