Your Nation Loves You – A review, somewhat.Posted: April 2, 2010
As I stood in a tunnel beneath Waterloo Station, which was plastered with graffiti, I spotted a true-to-life Banksy slightly above the wooden door that I was being ushered into by a security guard. “Banksy woz here”, it read. As I’d entered the tunnel, I’d commented to my accompanying companion that this designated ‘graffiti tunnel’ would be an ideal place for a Banksy. This was a Banksy, no doubt. Being a huge fan of his work, I could tell that it was clearly his writing, and his signature, or ‘tag’. I was just a little disappointed. Disappointed that he hadn’t opted for anything more imaginative. Even his grammar was too perfect. I expected, ‘Banksy woz ere’, or, failing that, ‘Banksy was here’, but not an amalgamation of both. Confused and a little dumbfounded, I proceeded through the door, into the Old Vic tunnels proper.
There I stood, with the other spectators, in my waterproof anorak and sturdy shoes, just as my confirmation e-mail from Delirium, the company putting on the show, had specified. My shoes weren’t really that sturdy, to tell you the truth. Instead, I wore a pair of fabulous multicoloured Etnies, with bright orange laces. I’m quite proud of them. On the way to the venue, I’d contemplated this most curious addendum to the e-mail I had received. I anticipated a certain amount of physical activity to take place. I expected to have to run, and possibly be sprayed with water, and this prospect excited me greatly. There weren’t a huge number of other spectators present, but this did not bother me, as it meant there wouldn’t be a huge crowd to impede my running, and inevitable water-evading shenanigans. The door was closed behind us by a plain clothes chaperone, and the experience began.
On the wall directly in front of us were a collection of sandwich bags which each contained a match, a bonbon, a dried apple slice, a plaster, and a note on a piece of ‘Department of Data Protection’ notepaper. The first few trinkets only heightened my excitement. I envisioned being thrown into a MacGyver-type scenario, in which we would have to use these items to build some sort of fantastical bunker-busting device. The note brought me quite abruptly down to earth, however, as it didn’t seem to be from the Department of Data Protection at all. Instead, it was a health and safety warning, telling us to follow the lights, keep out of the dark, and not remove any layers, as, if we couldn’t already tell, it was quite cold in the tunnels. Well, so much for a conspiracy.
We were then taken by our chaperones (another had appeared) into another tunnel, where the action would start. Without spoiling too much of the story, the play revolved around the aforementioned ‘victims’ of the government kidnapping plot, that I refer to in my previous entry. The play was primarily concerned with their experiences of living in the tunnels, after being trapped there, and trying to keep themselves sane. Above all, it was about these people doing their best to survive. Once the play began, we were ushered from one tunnel to the next, as more and more characters were slowly introduced to us. What struck me was the extent to which all of the characters had gone somewhat insane, having only been in the tunnels a few months. Regardless, this made for some humour, with one of the lead roles constantly talking to a silhouette of Churchill which he’d created himself from a lamplight shadow of a sculpture fashioned out of surrounding tat. There was also a humorous yet endearing scene where a couple of characters played chef with a defunct microwave.
It was moments such as this where I really felt I connected with the characters. The acting was great in places, with a few stand-out performances. I do think the experience was marred by some confusing directorial choices, however. These included a number of impromptu interpretive dance sequences, and a few (in my mind) confusing musical choices, such as the non-diegetic, thumping drum and bass soundtrack that accompanied the final scene, which I felt was inappropriate. I was also confused by the placement of the ‘fourth wall’, if there was one. Despite my prior musings, it became apparent rather quickly that this was definitely a promenade play, and not what I had suspected would be a piece of immersive theatre. That isn’t to say there is anything at all wrong with that. What troubled me was the way in which the cast interacted with the audience somewhat half-heartedly. There were moments where we were directly asked questions, and expected to answer. We were pointed at, touched, and clapped on the back at various points during the play. I remember particularly one point where a lady was led by the hand by one of the cast, towards our next scene. The characters were definitely aware of us, but I still felt that we were not fully ‘there’, in the world of the play. We couldn’t be. The chaperones pushing us through the tunnels made sure we constantly retained grounded in the real world. The play was about a group of kidnap victims (highlighted on the play’s website) who were not us. We weren’t met with the hullabaloo we saw from one character, when he discovered a new addition to the bunker. We were just watchers, or so I think we were. However, we weren’t, in other way, as the minor interactions we experienced dictated. This was a dilemma. Neither spectators, nor participators, my inability to determine the whereabouts of any ‘fourth wall’ troubled and infuriated me. I think the play could have certainly benefited from a more immersive presentation, but if any director is to create such a play, they need to do so with gusto. There is no middle ground between being in a play, and watching a play, and this really bothered me.
Some might see this as nit-picking, but it is one negative aspect I could not overcome. There were a few elements which seem quite trivial, but stopped me from really enjoying the piece, such as the inclusion of unnecessary swearing in the script. The ‘world’ of the bunker was well realised, to an extent. During our time in the tunnels, we were shown a water storage system crafted from upturned umbrellas, and even a makeshift garden, complete with faux UV lights. However, other than these installations, with the exception of a few other well-dressed areas, the tunnels were quite bare. It seemed impossible to think that twelve people lived here, but perhaps that was the point. Ultimately, we must not forget that this is a play set in some disused tunnels, and I feel the players all deserve our respect for performing in such an inhospitable venue.
I approached this play with high expectations, and I’m sad to say that I do feel a little disappointed. I think this is partly my own fault, but also that the directors could have done more with the format; something I think they alluded to with the play’s website, the e-mail I received, and the contents of the welcome pack (bar the note) we received on entry. My match, plaster, and foodstuffs are sitting in a restaurant in Soho at the moment, probably confusing the life out of some poor waiter. I can get over the fact that I didn’t have to run, jump, or swim, but I can’t help feeling just a little unfulfilled.
Am I justified in thinking so? I’m not sure, but I would like to catch up with Delirium, in perhaps a year’s time, and see what they’re up to. For a brief moment, they had me genuinely intrigued, and they deserve credit for this. Managing anticipation is quite the art, and they certainly had me guessing. The concept behind the play was inspired, and whether you enjoyed it or not, the play was certainly something different. Delirium certainly have some good ideas. There was definitely one moment in the play where I was caught off guard, and I would have liked to see more innovation to this extent. I think that is my problem. The play, as plays go, was fine. Maybe I was looking for something more than ‘just a play’; something that links back to managing audience expectations. I would call this a work in progress, then, but a promising work in progress, indeed. See you next year, Delirium.