Features Published 20 June 2015

Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back

Rafaella Marcus and David Ralf journey to a galaxy far, far away with Secret Cinema.
David Ralf

We didn’t have anything to trade but we claimed to have certain skills. Skills that could be useful to the rebellion. We were given a name, and were sent to look for a woman in the cantina. She could help us, if we could convince her we were worth it. A band is playing, and the crowd at the bar are in a variety of costumes, chatting or following up leads. We ask a likely looking old man in a long brown cloak. He’s telling us where to find the woman who will help us, when several Major Franchise Characters run past us, followed by Imperial officers. We’re perfectly on the edge of one of our favourite fictional universes.

Rafaella Marcus: Having attended a Secret Cinema event before that was, well, properly secret (and turned out to be The Shawshank Redemption), I was pretty psyched for a film I actually knew and loved. I’m the first to admit I don’t always like interactive theatre, mainly because I’m usually overwhelmed by the crushing anxiety that you’re doing it wrong oh my god everything is ruined now because of you go home you don’t know how to theatre. For that reason, I found the initial crowd control/outlining of missions a) sort of necessary and comforting because it let me discover the dynamic between me and the universe we were in on my own terms and b) a hell of a good workout (lots of lifting and crouching).

David Ralf: It’s fair to say I found the opening section uninspiring, and the establishment of attendees as rebels felt like so much crowd-control. It took me a while to settle into things once the show got on the road, and wandering around asking “Do you wanna buy some death-sticks from the prequels?” was not a good way to get into the swing of things.

RM: It was not.

DR: A gin cocktail and some really good street food (well, warehouse food) did the trick however and before long we were creeping around the environment watching other people pursue their side quests, and actors doing semi-scripted events throughout.

RM: Once I got over my natural instinct to keep my head down and stay out of trouble (it is fair to say I would not have joined the French Resistance), I actually found myself taking the lead on a lot of our missions – maybe because I knew the universe we were in but perhaps more because it’s impossible to derail or alter the outcome of the story, which gives you both the satisfying feeling of being part of something epic (Rebels fighting the Empire!) and the surreal notion of being the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Luke, Han and Leia (probably more Stoppard than Shakespeare).  In that sense, I think what Secret Cinema is doing is providing quite a safe form of interactive theatre; you can be playing yourself or playing a character, and you can get as involved as you’d like to.  To be clear, it definitely rewards getting involved; you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. The actors clearly want to get you involved and, like good improvisers, said ‘yes’ to everything we offered. At the very least, I have learned that in the face of an oppressive dictatorial regime, my survival skill is blagging my way out of trouble.

DR: The additions to the film itself were wonderfully done, with added lights in sync, and dumbshow elements which are the last thing that I want to spoil. Nevertheless they never distracted from the action, and the involvement of those same Major Franchise Characters we saw up close earlier in the evening highlighted what is important in Empire

RM: Which is Han Solo and Princess Leia’s bestest romance ever.

DR: This is probably the first time I’ve seen Empire in isolation, loosed from the context of the simply stunning first film, and my long-time favourite Return of the Jedi. It is, I think, the most beautifully shot of the films, and the visuals of Cloud City and Dagobah are gorgeous. It’s the discerning, complicating film, the one that sees Luke scarred, scared, cruelly unhanded and then fearfully fathered, Han Solo frozen in carbonite and worst of all, R2 and Threepio separated for the bulk of the film – making, inadvertently, R2 a screeching, annoying, moving bin. They are both at their best when bound close together like Tahei and Matashichi in The Hidden Fortress as they were in the first film, rather than the feisty and brave droid to Threepio’s cowardly lion. It’s also so much fun to go back to these films that occupy such a large space (hah) in my head, and realise that they descend more from space opera than Akira Kurosawa, and so there is an incredible amount of camp alongside the cool.

RM: We need to acknowledge here that there are two ways of enjoying Star Wars, especially Empire (which, as everyone except Dave apparently knows, is the best one). I mean, you can appreciate them artistically and make references to Kurosawa and all that but let’s also not forget that the reason Empire is the best film is because it’s the aforementioned Han-and-Leia-Roadtrip film. Despite containing maybe the biggest film spoiler of all time (yes, it was his sled) actually comparatively little happens in it – the whole thing is character development: Luke learning who he is and what nonsensical bollocks the Force is, Han being faced with the mirror of his former self in the form of Lando Calrissian, Leia…doesn’t really have an arc in this one but runs a fine line in GIF-able exasperated reactions, so whatever.  The nice thing is that Secret Cinema offers you room to engage thoughtfully and geekily and, most importantly, boozily.

Leia Nerfherder

DR: There’s a choice of how to engage with Secret Cinema, and I can completely see how people who see the food and drink as a money-making opportunity on top of a £75 ticket. To me, the potential for roleplay and puzzle-solving as a mechanic for getting access to more content (but conversely without the feeling of ‘missing out’ on things happening elsewhere) alongside a beautifully built world, spectacle, seamless tech and a truly great film made for an utterly satisfying experience. The experience Secret Cinema have put togetheris massive. It’s five-or-six hours of varied entertainments, and we saw 7 year-old kids and a couple in their seventies having a great evening.

RM: What I took away from the evening was that it was unexpectedly moving. Properly, like, totes emosh, you guys. Obviously, I can’t spoil the particular moment but I’ve never engaged with the series as seriously as I did at Secret Cinema, which seems odd given that the whole thing is essentially expensive dress up and playing pretend. Which might actually be the genius of it – when was the last time you immersed yourself in fiction as seriously as you did as a child? Not since you last put on a cape/crown/cardboard box astronaut’s helmet, picked up a stick and ran around screaming, I’ll bet.

DR: When you’re a kid the watching and the recreating and the remixing aren’t separated out into different disciplines – ‘playing’ something that you’ve seen is a natural, effortless but immersive negotiation with the source material. And Secret Cinema puts you into that same relationship. We’re watching and we’re involved in remaking almost simultaneously.

RM: At its best, Secret Cinema sanctions that urge and gives it a safe space with a veneer of grown-upness (mostly street food and booze). It’s easy to turn something as well-known and loved as Star Wars into parody, but there was nothing knowing or wink wink about Secret Cinema’s Empire; it was completely and utterly a celebration of the series in all its campy, witty, ass-kicking glory.

DR: I think that critics are at a disadvantage, perhaps, when reviewing productions that are bigger than a show. This isn’t a play, from which you can retreat to the pub, and pick over. It’s a celebration of something already loved. It’s an experience for which having seen and loved the original Star Wars is a prerequisite, and knowing The Empire Strikes Back itself, while not necessary, is also highly recommended.

RM: In some ways, it is a cynical choice – capitalising on a much loved 80s film that can be attended by the grown-up, now-affluent kids who watched it back in the day (see also Back to the Future) and below the line on the Guardian review there’s a lot of smearing Secret Cinema for being ‘for hipsters’. But the majority of those around us didn’t fit that mould. They were our age, or younger, or much older, which is testament to how enduring the series is, and I think that’s what was being celebrated. If you love Star Wars, you love the little moments – you love Han Solo’s whoop as he conveniently turns up at the last minute to save the day in A New Hope, you love Luke leaning back in his chair after Leia bestows a (hella creepy) kiss on him in Empire, you even, goddammit, probably love the fecking Ewoks playing a victory song on the empty (we hope) helmets of Stormtroopers in Jedi.

DR: Only hipsters hate Ewoks.

RM: Then hand me my lumberjack beard and fixie bike. The big picture stuff was done – and done beautifully – but what made me feel all warm and squishy inside was the attention to detail (I really want to tell you about a particular item of clothing here, but son-of-a-nerf-herder—

DR: Secret Cinema are pretty serious about the ‘secret’ bit. It’s probably for the best. And though it’s not the item of costume you’re thinking of, I’d definitely recommend attendees bring a scarf or something to cover your face like the organisers suggest. You’re a rebel, you won’t want to be recognised.

RM: In the end, I came out of it shouting “I helped [redacted] to [redacted]! [Redacted] ran right past me! [Redacted] hit on me!” And all manner of other spoilery things.

DR: It’s like a big West End show, a stadium gig, a festival. A birthday present, a once-in-a-blue moon blowout. It’s an event, and just because it’s running until September doesn’t make it less so. Don’t go if you will want to sleep after – go if you’ll put on Jedi the moment you get home.

RM: (But then prepare to be disappointed at how much worse than Empire it is. Sorry, Dave.)

Secret Cinema: The Empire Strikes Back runs until 27th September 2015.

Photography credit: Camilla Greenwell.

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David Ralf

David Ralf is a writer and critic in London. He won the Sunday Times Harold Hobson Award for reviewing at the ISDF in 2012, and the Kenneth Tynan Prize for his reviews for the Oxford Theatre Review in 2011. He draws pens and doodles at Pens by Pens.

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