“I never call my work immersive”, says RIFT’s Felix Mortimer, “but somehow it always gets attached. I don’t know what it means.” From his adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial across Hoxton last year, a serialised shopfront Tempest called O Brave New World before that and all the way back to 2009’s audio-instructed Hall with his first company 19;29, Mortimer has explored experiential relationships between space, audience and narrative. Now directing an all-night production of Macbeth in East London’s Balfron Tower, he’s unlikely to shake theatre’s most used and abused buzzword.
But Mortimer is keen to distance his practice from the “adult roller-coaster” thrills that some immersive (or site-specific, which “used to be the catchphrase”) work traffics in. “Stories are at the centre of what we do, something that’s lacking in a lot of this sort of stuff. Often it’s just like, ‘Ooh, an environment, lots of taxidermy’, or whatever.” This isn’t to disparage other practitioners from riding the Punchdrunk wave; “these methods are an amazing toolbox, and people’s perspectives have massively widened. But I think a lot of companies are used to working in a certain way, and they haven’t thought about how to respond to these changes and possibilities. We’ve always worked like this, just because that’s how we wanted to work.”
“We” is an evolving collection of people that have come together in different incarnations. After 19;29 came Retz, a partnership with designer Joshua Nawras, since renamed RIFT for legal reasons. “There’s the same fundamental elements, but I’m just getting much better at making things,” Mortimer says – and as techniques and technologies have been developed and interrogated, their scale and budget have skyrocketed. Thanks to grants from the Arts Council and Sky Arts: Futures Fund, Mortimer could quit his day job as an English teacher and produce increasingly ambitious pieces. In some ways, he reasons, the constant company name-shifting affords him and his collaborators a relative anonymity that lets each piece stand on its own merits. Plus it’s not like they need the exposure – Macbeth had long sold out when we met up to discuss it.
It’s become customary to pin the appeal of this performance style to the popularity of video games, or to talk about a porous interface between theatre and gaming – a discourse which Stewart Pringle helpfully identified as centring around questions of “freedom, movement and participation”. Is it a useful theoretical lens? “People are beginning to see theatre doesn’t have to be like films,” Mortimer considers, “but I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where you’re as free as in video games, and games will never get to the point where you’re as viscerally in the room with someone as theatre”. Macbeth also isn’t an individual pursuit; “We wanted to play with group dynamics, to expand and retract; you’re primarily in a group of ten, then occasionally with 30; and then there’s sections when you’re with the full 90 people.”
Presumably, I suggest, that question of autonomy is key – as a director, how do you negotiate the line between empowering spectators to construct their own narrative, logic, or experience whilst adhering to a deliberate dramatic structure? “Audience psychology is so crucial to all of it,” he reflects, “because A) You’re trying to manipulate their feelings, and B) you’re trying to manipulate them physically in spaces to go along with what you’re doing.” It’s as much a logistical challenge as a creative one. “With this kind of thing, there’s always those awkward stewards who go ‘don’t go in here’, and I think companies really need to think about that,” he says. In Macbeth, audiences are guided by the minor characters, played by IdeasTap-selected artists in residence who also assist with production and design aspects. “I’d really resisted the idea of stewards, but this is deeply woven into the fabric of what we’re doing; they’re invested in the production.”
It’s an interesting form for Macbeth – a play that is itself about the tension between individual choice and prophetic or dramatic fate. “I don’t think we’d intended a metanarrative of audience-as-Macbeth”, Mortimer laughs; the idea for the play came from the building. “The Balfron Tower was the UK’s first piece of brutalist architecture, built in 1957 by this guy called Goldfinger. The Bond villain was named after him – so you can guess what he was like.” As well as the architect’s megalomania and the building’s imposing, fortresslike exterior, Mortimer and Nawras were drawn to the contrast between the structure’s utopian, post-war socialism and its later characterisation as an urban dystopia; it was most famously used as a location for the film 28 Days Later. “Macbeth wants to be King so he can change society, but then horses start eating each other and widows start crying in the street. Our production’s set in the 1970s, that period of change when it went from this utopian ideal to a dystopia.”
It’s not the first time that companies have “immersed” audiences in Macbeth; Belt-Up squeezed it rather bewilderingly into a First World War bunker, and most famously Punchdrunk adapted the tragedy for Sleep No More. What sets RIFT’s apart, though, is its durational aspect – once the King has strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage, audiences will spend the night in the tower. “The idea is that you’ve just experienced the whole play, then subconsciously the rest of it happens in your mind; we’re hoping that people will have these wild, vivid dreams and that everything we give them to eat will stimulate their creativity.”
These productions have had varying levels of success in relocating the play’s specificities in time and space, but Mortimer plays down the challenges of a 1970s Thane of Cawdor. “It’s so unrooted in its time that it translates – Macbeth is about a marriage breaking down, it’s about tribalism, and the idea that a King dying creates a state of flux and a power vacuum. Look at Russia and the Crimea – it’s exactly the same, on a different scale.” As for whether the Scottish play been timed to coincide with the independence referendum, Mortimer insists it’s coincidental – though considers it’ll be interesting to see how the theme plays out if the run extends into September.
While the future of Europe and the UK might hang in the balance, RIFT seems pretty set on its direction for the next year or so – Mortimer and Nawras are currently producing the two-year Shakespeare in Shoreditch Festival, which sees specially commissioned writers respond to texts and locations, developing work with emerging companies to coincide with Shakespeare’s 450th birthday and the 400th anniversary of his death. Will it be changing its name again? “No – RIFT’s here to stay.”
RIFT’s all-night Macbeth will play at Balfron Tower, London, throughout July and August 2014.