Invisible Treasure, Ovalhouse

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There’s always a promise held somewhere in interactive theatre. There’s the idea, cherished by so many of its makers, that by making the audience physically active we’ll become activated in other ways as well. That by getting us on our feet and interacting with one another, we’ll be shaken out of our stupor and become – however briefly – part of the sort of utopian community that all theatre holds the fragile potential for.

So much interactive theatre, though, has become lazy or cynical or both, trading on a label that suddenly has currency in the “experience economy” we now live in. Far too often, “interactive” (encased suspiciously in quotation marks) means little more than a marketing tick-box. Supposedly unique experiences are deeply derivative and being physically active becomes just another way of being mentally passive.

In their ambitious new show, fanSHEN are attempting to recover some of that essential promise. With no performers but a hefty load of technology, Invisible Treasure is experimenting with what it’s possible for people to do together in a space: how far they are willing to play and to work together, and when they will challenge authority. This is theatre that’s trying in some way to model how we interact in the world beyond these four walls; as the company’s description puts it, it is a world “that feels like the inside of a computer game but yet seems strangely similar to our own”. It is, as I say, ambitious.

And for the moment, at least, fanSHEN fall short of those ambitions. They’ve saddled themselves with a Catch-22 of a project: to develop, Invisible Treasure needs testing with audiences, but that testing requires exposing it in a delicate, unfinished state. It’s still a work-in-progress, then, ironing out flaws and glitches along the way. Writing about it also feels like something of a work-in-progress – an unfinished response to an unfinished show.

The computer game reference point in Invisible Treasure’s blurb is an apt one. Walking into the sleek white box of Cécile Trémolières’ design, all we have to go by is a single screen displaying cryptic instructions. It’s like a puzzle, but one that can only be collectively solved. There are lights, sounds and a colourful, textured floor, as well as a huge, ominous white rabbit looming in the corner (echoes of Alice in Wonderland as we plunge down the digital rabbit hole). A Big Brother-esque figure is watching and our actions as we progress through confusing levels can either please or displease him, as updates on the screen inform us.

Audience involvement requires a careful framework, establishing parameters in which participants can exercise a degree of freedom. It might go against what fanSHEN are trying to do, but audience members – especially awkward, reserved, stereotypically British audience members (*raises hand*) – respond well to guidelines and limitations. As it currently exists, Invisible Treasure is just a bit too baffling and amorphous. Whether or not you choose to play by them, games need rules. The different levels here are often frustratingly opaque, and whether we progress by effort or by default is unclear. It’s hard to know what we are supposed to be achieving or resisting.

That said, in certain moments the piece is skilful in coaxing its audience into involvement and cooperation. The simplicity of manoeuvring our bodies into shapes, reminiscent of school drama exercises, quickly gets everyone working together (if with mixed success). And I loved the dance sequence, in which we are all encouraged first in protective darkness and then in exposing light to boogie in a series of familiar styles (conclusion: I can’t line dance to save my life, but I love a bit of the twist).

After puzzling (often unwittingly) our way through the show’s levels, though, the final reveal (SPOILER ALERT) feels a little unearned. That slightly terrifying rabbit cracks open down the middle and we step through the looking glass into a backstage space, all wires and controls. This is where fanSHEN really frame the intentions of the piece, but it feels like something of a shortcut. On the outside walls of the space we’ve just emerged from, questions are scrawled, asking us about cooperation and resistance both within and beyond the walls of the theatre. Pens invite our responses, but most answers speak of confusion – a common response to the show, it would seem.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that the complicated motion-sensor technology has eaten up much of fanSHEN’s development time, with the dramaturgy having to take a backseat. What the piece is trying to do – using interaction as a prompt to consider our interactions in the wider world and all of their political implications – is interesting and the set-up of the performance is intriguing, but as an experience it doesn’t yet cohere. Tensions that could be fascinating, such as that between the Big Brother element and the cooperation asked of us in each level, are currently just a bit awkward, while the directness of the questions we are issued with at the end feels as though it is making up for the lack of clarity elsewhere. There’s definitely something here, but it needs more time – and more audiences – to begin realising its ambitions. 

Photo: Cat Lee.

Cheese, 29-31 Oxford Street

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As fanSHEN’s creative director Rachel Briscoe commented in a blog for The Guardian, “starting points matter in theatre”. Unlike others, who may interrogate the damage done by our resource-hungry society through content and even form but leave the structures that support them unexamined, sustainability is at the very foundation of fanSHEN’s work. However powerfully it delivers its punch, it’s hard not to watch a technically accomplished show like Earthquakes in London and wonder cynically where the energy is coming from; in the case of Cheese, fanSHEN’s new site-specific look at the financial crisis, there’s no need to wonder.

Every last element of this production is influenced by its relationship to the company’s sustainability aims. Joshua Pharo’s unusual but striking lighting design is a necessity of limited energy, all of which is provided by electricity generated in local gyms and community centres; the DIY aesthetic and unmasked theatricality are a consequence of constraints set by the company on the materials it uses. Because these limitations are there from the beginning, embedded right in the heart of the company’s philosophy, they end up closely married to the work. As well as practising what they preach, fanSHEN’s dedication to sustainability is reflected off every facet of their work, both informing and supporting it. This is theatre that recognises its role in making as well as showing, enacting at the same time as it represents.

Unfortunately, however, the different strands of the show itself do not gel quite as cohesively. Nikki Schreiber’s play adopts an absurdist approach in order to take a sideways look at the financial crisis, creating an allegory that substitutes cash with cheese. Protagonists Joe and Freya seem pretty cosy in their Emmental house, but when their supply of cheddar, brie and gruyere suddenly dries up overnight, they are forced to reassess their existence – and their diet. Freya is quick to pursue a new life, while Joe stubbornly clings to the vestiges of the old one until disillusionment and hunger send him on a journey in search of fresh flavours.

The central story of Joe and Freya’s rise and fall is a cannily plotted exploration of the predicament we now find ourselves in, using a metaphor that functions both as a lucid explanation of the financial crisis and a means of highlighting the absurdity of the actions that caused it. The surrounding narrative, however, is not so tight. Joe’s journey, despite offering a series of entertaining encounters, takes a decidedly meandering route. At one point, for instance, he finds himself talked into participating in a psychological experiment, the outcome of which offers a telling and unsettling diagnosis of our response to perceived authority. While this sequence is sharp, disturbing and theatrically compelling, however, it serves as a distracting digression from the main trajectory of the piece, addressing a question that is fascinating but tangential.

The play proper is also framed by another reality, which is where the site-specific element of the piece comes in. The fictional setting of this very ordinary office space on Oxford Street is the London Mortgage Company, which is having its last post-liquidation hurrah by putting on this deeply apt bit of theatre for its departing employees. This device acts as an explanation for the potentially temperamental power – the company haven’t been able to pay their electricity bill – and for the deliberately shoddy props. With simple and often hilarious flourishes of ingenuity, elastic bands become pieces of cheese and bulldog clips stand in for tomatoes.

This framing is the source of much of the piece’s humour, as the cast get to relish in some of the worst excesses of am-dram and theatrical tricks are stripped back to their bare basics. But Rachel Donovan, Jon Foster and Jamie Zubairi are all far too good to consistently convince as awkward novice thesps, while the truly beautiful theatrical moments that emerge from the enforced simplicity are undermined by the implicit mockery. The relationship between frame and image also feels regrettably underexamined. Why are the employees choosing to put on this play? Are they aware of its shattering resonance with their own predicament? The dissolving layers of meaning would seem to suggest so, as distress and anxiety bleed both ways, but the interaction between the two concepts demands further scrutiny.

Despite these criticisms, however, there is much that the piece offers by way of obliquely insightful political comment. The impulses that invisibly motor our society are unveiled through the distance offered by metaphor, while the possibility of resolution is complicated by an astute critique of localism and a recognition of our continuing desire to protect our own interests first and foremost. But there is still hope. Alongside sustainability, central to fanSHEN’s work is a belief that imagination, not fear, is the pathway to change. So, despite the underpinning of self-interest and the ambivalent attitude towards the wider world, we are ultimately offered a chink of much needed optimism. This too is inherent in the very mechanisms of the work, which makes its own change. If fanSHEN can shift the way in which their structures operate, then why can’t we?

Photo: Conrad Blakemore.