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Let me describe to you the scene at Harrington’s Pie and Mash shop last Friday night. Tucked between the signs and lights of the Gielgud and the Queen’s Theatres is an unimposing doorway: Harrington’s, it says. This must be it, you think, although it doesn’t look like much. But the crush of people along Shaftesbury Avenue is urging you to take action, so you decide to pass through this diminutive door, along a darkened corridor and into a bar. The bar has a speakeasy feel, naturally (what newly-opened London bar does not, nowadays?). Dim filament bulbs hang over barrels, and artisanal cocktail makers shake gin-based drinks before a swelling crowd.
You turn into another room, this one filled with long tables and benches, and notice on the wall a sign: jellied eels, eat in or takeaway. A pianist sits in the corner; he will play for almost three hours. You take a seat, at once apprehensive and excited, and wait.
This is the setting for Sweeney Todd, transplanted from Tooting where the production has enjoyed enormous success in the original Harrington’s Pie and Mash shop, and has been lifted – to the very last detail – to London’s West End. Director Bill Buckhurst’s excitingly “experiential” rendering of the old penny dreadful story caught the eye of the musical’s creator (Stephen Sondheim) last year, and it is with his blessing and the backing of the omnipotent Cameron Mackintosh that the production finds itself rubbing shoulders with Curious Incidents and Les Mises in the bright lights of the capital’s Theatreland.
You are on the “press” table, alas. A row of matching Moleskines rest along the chequered tablecloth; more horrifying, almost, than the prospect of the blood-and-guts filled performance to come. You have just enough time for a final gulp of the Mother’s Ruin you clutch in your hand when the lights go out entirely and the performance begins.
It is completely unsettling, of course. And, of course, it is completely brilliant. Actors leer and lean, sitting on laps, climbing across tables. Scenes are candlelit; surreal songs are sung. Moments of darkness are alarmingly dark, and others are sidesplittingly funny (and – occasionally, disquietingly – the two moments meet, and laughter escapes your lips as the demonic Sweeney Todd slits at throat after unsuspecting throat).
I could write for several paragraphs more about the dexterity of the troupe of climbing, singing, character-swapping actors, or the tirelessness of the pianist and the accompanying violin and clarinet, or the clever use of space, and the perfectly-handled light. But I think that I will not. For if we’re playing the demon this weekend (tonsorial or otherwise), then I might put to you another question, a question that struck me as I observed the ankles of the actor standing on the table before me.
And the question, so horribly unfashionable that I barely dare to write it, is this: what has led to this trend we call “experiential” theatre? It is everywhere, this interplay of artifice with reality. It is in the roaring success of the so-called Secret Cinema, and the upsurge of companies like Punchdrunk. Such performances are gifts for the senses, so laden with detail that you leave with your head spinning. They are bold and exhilarating. As Punchdrunk’s founder Felix Barrett said in an interview in 2013: “In the theatre, you sit there closeted and you switch off part of your brain because you’re comfortable. If you’re uncomfortable, then suddenly you’re eager to receive.”
Yet, to be constantly stimulated, to be overwhelmed with sensual prompts: is this boldness, or simply laziness? The imagination is left with no role; everything is fed straight to the observer. It occurred to me as Sweeney Todd grimaced into the face of an audience member that there was no space for interpretation here. The performance – vivid and immediate and inexorable – was so close as to quash any questions we might have.
People call immersive theatre the breaking down of the fourth wall, but this seems to me to be a misunderstanding. To destroy the fourth wall is to admit to the artifice of a performance, to address the pretence of it all; thus, Moliere’s enquiry in l’Impromptu de Versailles as to “whether this invisible fourth wall does not conceal a crowd observing us”. No, the fourth wall has not been dismantled in experiential theatre. Instead, it has been erected beyond the audience, inviting you or me into the drama in its blending of performance with reality. This might not be the smashing up of theatre that we supposed, then, but rather a revival of realism.
To push this line of thought still further (as my eyes turn a darker shade of scarlet, and a pair of horns emerge from the top of my head), I will reiterate a question that has been troubling critics for some time. What is the morality of performances such as this? Not Sweeney Todd, so much. Here you are, at least, consigned to your seat and allowed to stay there, cocktail in hand. But such performances as Lucien Bourjeily’s 66 Minutes in Damascus, in which the audience are “arrested” by the ‘Syrian secret service’ and subjected to a period – 66 minutes, in fact – of interrogation and terror.
The coerciveness of these performances is alarming, but even with less unsettling subject matter I still find cause for concern. For when the engagement and understanding of audiences are dictated by their interaction with the actors then where is their agency? The act of theatre-going becomes an act of submission. Michael Coveney warned of this almost five years ago, bewailing in Prospect Magazine immersive theatre companies’ “low-level fascism in their treatment of the ‘up for it’ audience”.
Oh dear: I seem to have taken my role as devil’s advocate a step too far. To leap from a pleasurable performance to one which smacks of fascism is, you’ll agree, a little much (the fault of one Mother’s Ruin too many, perhaps). I think I’ll take off these oppressive horns and continue as before, with only one word more. Julian Beck writes in the Living Theatre’s manifesto the aim to “call into question who we are to each other in the social environment of the theater”. He is right; it is necessary to constantly call these relationships into question. But what if we no longer like who we are in the theatre, or what we are becoming? At what point exactly will we feel that the objectivity of the audience has been lost, and so say “stop” to experiential theatre?
Sweeney Todd at Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop (in Shaftesbury Avenue) is booking until May 30.