For most of the Covid-19 lockdown period so far, the need for ‘live’ theatre has been met by the generous opening of archival vaults by theatres around the world, allowing audiences to experience previously recorded live events from their own homes. The choice of many of these theatres to enhance the sense of live participation by imposing tight time limits on the availability of the recording, or to hold a ‘premiere’ event hosted by the theatre that takes place at a particular time, seems to have had an enthusiastic take-up; and where theatres haven’t done this themselves, audience communities have self-generated watch-parties to allow for collective viewing and live-tweeting.
Alongside this, however, ever more companies are repurposing everyday communication technologies to develop new synchronous productions that allow company and audience to develop unique performance events in real time. This is far from being an original innovation – some small companies, especially those working on gaming principles, have been developing phone-based interactive theatre for many years – but the sudden shift in usual working practices is bringing webconferencing platforms to the fore as a new theatre.
The Oxford-based Creation Theatre developed its immersive production of The Tempest as an IRL interactive experience last summer, and the quick conversion of Zoe Seaton’s heavily-cut adaptation for a cast (mostly returning from the 2019 version) now working in isolation was self-confessedly rough, with chief executive Lucy Askew offering an explanatory preface that pre-empted Prospero’s closing plea ‘Let your indulgence set us free’. Yet there’s an argument to be made that immersive theatre – certainly that which depends upon spontaneous performance from an audience of inevitably varying confidence and competence – depends upon a certain level of roughness. The joy of interactivity is the process of creating something collaboratively, and just as Creation drew on the impromptu labours and imaginations of its audience, so too did that draw attention to the creative labour of its isolated participants, developing solitary performances edited into an amusing and even moving hour.
Prospero (Simon Spencer-Hyde), leaning into a webcam to welcome his ‘spirits’, was positioned in front of a bank of monitors that displayed the face of whoever he was spying on at a given moment. Speaking into a hand-held microphone, I was bizarrely reminded of Nick Nack in The Man with the Golden Gun, operating machinery and providing commentary while Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga hunted victims in his personalised funfair. While the production didn’t delve into the more sinister implications of this, it was one of the strongest senses I’ve ever had from a Tempest of Prospero’s miniature surveillance state. And with Ferdinand (Ryan Duncan) especially emphasised as trapped within the frame of the monitor, the shots of audience members similarly confined within rectangular frames visualised the idea of a captive audience, constant reminders that we were as available to Prospero’s searching gaze as the shipwrecked nobles.
As Prospero’s spirits, the audience was co-opted in the creation of Ariel’s magic, with Itxaso Moreno’s sprite (wearing sparkly face paint and spiked hair, and crawling towards a camera positioned on the floor to emphasise her difference) taking the role of our bandleader. During these sequences, the mute on our microphones was removed and we were called upon to create the effects of the storm (through blowing, then clicking, then clapping, developing a collective cacophony from around a hundred different computers), to bark like dogs in the chase, even to collectively sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ to lull Alonso to sleep (in a sequence that reminded me of the school song in the first Harry Potter novel, where everyone chooses their own individual melody and speed….). During these moments, the production selected images of audience members to flash up across the screen, especially highlighting moments of individual creativity – enthusiastic dancing during Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding, or the eclectic array of foods that we grabbed for the banquet.
In a critical climate that tends to be sceptical of Prospero’s control and manipulation, there were moments when the cognitive reflection on what I was being asked to do jarred with the joy of being silly and playing along. At times we were asked to contribute to the torture of Prospero’s victims, wracking his prisoners with cramps; at other times to snarl and terrify frightened conspirators as dogs. It’s alarming how comfortable the co-optive strategies of the production sometimes felt, especially at a time when we are more than usually conscious of the need to follow the instructions of the state in the name of public health. The production didn’t invite us to reflect critically on the rightness of Prospero’s cause (albeit the self-absorbed public personas of Alonso, Sebastianne (Madeline MacMahon) and Antonio (Giles Stoakley), a Bluth-like family of celebrities, invited pleasure in their inevitable humiliations), but instead assumed a complicity that seemed willingly given. Fascinatingly, it’s a moment where the need for collective buy-in in order to make the production work created an implicit alignment with a character and practices with which an audience might, in a different format, have wanted to exercise more scepticism about.
The surveillance element of the production was beautifully turned around when Alonso (Al Barclay) found one of Prospero’s cameras embedded in a tree in the forest, and started hacking it to see if he could reverse his view. When he did, he joyously was able to ‘see’ the spirits and welcomed us with delight, asking us to go and grab any (real or stuffed) animals we might have in order to show off the native fauna of the island. This was an especially lovely moment, an audience of strangers sharing their dogs, cats and teddy bears with the world, and one of several moments during the production in which the implicit invitation into one another’s homes created a level of audience intimacy that in many ways exceeded what is possible in a normal theatre environment. However carefully we curate our Zoom backgrounds, the invitations to bring our food and pets into the performance forced reflection on our private boundaries and lived experiences – which again, in a more Orwellian interpretation of the material, might be sinister, but here seemed to also serve a need and desire to share that many have experienced in lockdown.
Not all of the interaction worked quite as well. Very early in the production, we were introduced to the nobles via a press conference as they prepared to board ship. The production sent out questions via the chat function, which audience members were invited to ask, positioning themselves as journalists. I was impressed at the number who took this up, creating a range of amusing fictional newspapers, but it was only in retrospect that I realised what was actually going on, and the pre-scripted interactions were off-putting to me as a mode of interaction, seeming to give rather more chance of embarrassing myself by getting things wrong. Nonetheless, it was a fun way to introduce the guffawing, self-confident nobles, before Ariel brought us in to create the storm in a more collective way.
Each of the cast was framed against a green-screen backdrop that allowed the scene to change around them. This began in a more representative way, with characters framed against ‘home’ backgrounds that indicated relative wealth (Antonio) or squalor (Caliban’s cell). Shared backgrounds, such as the dock at the press conference, began creating more consistent spatial locations that allowed us to understand characters as sharing a space, and there was a certain amount of spatial play that worked to position the actors as speaking to one another off the sides of their screens, though this was a less thoroughly developed part of the aesthetic. Most fun, however, was when the green screen was used for more audacious effects, as in the stand-out moment of the nobles running away from Jurassic Park‘s T-Rex; and Rhodri Lewis’s Trinculo had fun playing with a section of the screen where parts of his body appeared to be disappearing from view. I craved more of this kind of silliness, which showed the self-conscious inventiveness of the format.
The most ambitious effects were reserved for Ferdinand and Miranda (Annabelle Terry). The vast majority of the production was performed in Speaker View, focusing on one individual at a time; for Miranda and Ferdinand’s courtship, however, the company integrated some pre-recorded material (including both of them moving through garden and shed locations as if captured on CCTV) and some interesting spatial organisation of the frame to allow for apparent POV shots of one another (the actors holding up pieces of wall through which they peered) and, eventually, for a moment where the two appeared in separate frames divided by a black bar, through which they reached to take one another’s hand. In a moving interlude, as Miranda reached through the frame and the hand magically appeared on Ferdinand’s side, the screen suddenly exploded into a composite montage of the two of them together, moving through air, celebrating and being together. Again, it’s hard to imagine how this moment will look once the lockdown is lifted, but the emotional pull of reaching through a technological divide and suddenly finding yourself with someone else had an affective power I wasn’t fully prepared for. It’s perhaps the first time I’ve felt invested in that relationship.
The idea that human interactions are framed and constrained by technology was another evocative element of the production that emerged both intentionally and serendipitously. Jokes about Caliban’s (PK Taylor) ‘low bandwidth’ (which, from talking to audience members who saw other performances, may have been a unique feature of this performance) seemed designed to compensate for the technical issues affecting the comprehensibility of Caliban’s performance, but of course also served to add to the sense of Caliban’s lack of privilege throughout; there’s more comment to be made about the ways in which that effect, developed further, allows us to consider the new inequities emerging in an online world where the internet is decidedly unequal. Ariel’s freedom, meanwhile, was signified by her leaving the Zoom meeting, a powerful moment that underlined for me the ways in which videoconferencing makes me feel trapped at my desk, even less able to move than I am at a face-to-face meeting, and the sense of liberation when I get to sign out. During the post-show chat, I was also struck to learn that other audience members would have been able to see me at their leisure even when I wasn’t being featured, if they switched to Gallery View, and the production’s acknowledgement of the ease with which those with the controlling power can manipulate and observe resonated with me as much as the general jollity.
Finally, at the production’s close, Prospero’s final speech drew in ‘Our revels now are ended’ and, in a moment whose affective power is difficult to describe, the company broke character and started dismantling their own production. Not only did they begin removing make-up and costume, but they even started taking down the green screens behind them. This dismantling of the apparatus of the production – which reminded me of Cheek by Jowl’s Russian production of the play, which used that speech to bring the whole edifice of theatre crashing to a halt – drew attention to the practical labour and structure of the performance, while also interestingly performing a collective undoing of it, as the actors once more became people in isolation like ourselves and returned to their private homes. This sense of a return perhaps, for me, best represented what this production meant as a moment of live performance at a time when the value of live performance is being rediscovered. The production’s disruption of monotony, of conventional space, of relative seclusion, was explicitly acknowledged as being temporary, and for all of the production’s roughness, I felt genuinely sad that it ended; mitigated by the final offer for us all to open up Gallery View and spend a couple of minutes in which the company and audience could all see one another, waving and sharing and talking over one another, in a moment that many didn’t seem to want to end.
Many thanks to the post-show discussion group: Pascale Aebischer, Michael Joel Bartelle, Judith Buchanan, Thea Buckley, Colette Gordon, Susanne Greenhalgh, Ronan Hatfull, Stuart Hampton-Reeves, Elizabeth Jeffery, Heidi Liedke, Emer McHugh, Steve Purcell, Lyn Tribble, John Wyver, and organiser Erin Sullivan (I think I got everyone!)