He was about 20, maybe a bit younger, pushing his bike out of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park as we were on our way in, past the lemon-shirted LIFT employees and volunteers. ‘You guys know this is a graveyard yeah?’ he said to one of them, askance. These are the accusations immersive theatre companies working with beloved local landmarks do their best to parry: that the work is in some way invasive, disrespectful, using the trappings of a community without engaging with that community. If overhearing that comment from a local resident while I was about to watch Circa’s LIFT 2016 show Depart made me nervous, the show itself did absolutely nothing to assuage my fears.
‘It really wouldn’t be LIFT if we didn’t present shows in some of the city’s less conventional performance spaces,’ says Mark Ball, LIFT’s Artistic Director, in Depart‘s programme. ‘The nooks and crannies that so often lie undiscovered to most of us, but that reveal hidden and fascinating stories of London’s past and present.’ Sounds absolutely great – so a bit of a shame, then, that Circa were so completely uninterested in the Cemetery Park’s history and context, and the stories of the people buried there.
It’s a Victorian cemetery, but it didn’t close for burials until 1966, so it’s not at all unlikely that audience members could have near relatives buried there – and just a quick google reveals a wealth of history. Bombed during WWII, the cemetery became overgrown and damaged and , since closing, has become a local nature reserve, a public space, overgrown and beautiful, with tree roots pushing at the headstones: it occupies a unique cultural position and I absolutely believe that all of that history and beauty could make for powerful, meaningful art. But Depart didn’t feel like it had grown out of that space or that history. It was just a bunch of lights and hoopla dumped in a graveyard.
It’s obviously a beautiful place to go for a well-lit, expensive physical show and while their use of space was inventive, it was pretty disrespectful. I’m not superstitious, but should you literally dance on people’s graves? Should you video-project endless 20-something girls flouncing moodily in a white dress onto real people’s headstones? (And by the way there is no depiction of death or the underworld less intellectually satisfying than a sombre-looking wide-eyed young girl shimmying about in a dress.) Does it make it fine as long as these people died 50 years ago and not last month? What’s the statute of limitations on feeling like we owe the dead a modicum of respect or, at the very least, interest in the lives that preceded those deaths?
Joseph and Joanne Westmoor. Gillian Trundle. As we walked in enforced silence (you aren’t allowed to talk at all during the 90 minute show) from one vapid set piece to the next, each more impressive than the last but all equally as meaningless, it was hard to keep from noticing the names of the people whose graves Circa were using as set dressing.
Like pretty much every immersive experience I’ve ever been on, there were about three times as many people in the audience as you would want there to be, meaning that the movement between performance areas was broken up with interminable and utterly silent queues. It actually felt, at times, a bit like being at Glastonbury Festival: you’re wandering through a bunch of trees at dusk and suddenly, without warning, you come upon someone twatting about in a hoop and notice, without being moved in any way, that it’s impressive. Except at least at Glastonbury you’d be drunk and allowed to talk to your friends.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s all very impressive. Circa are hugely talented and their team of performers are remarkable. The final set piece is an extended sequence on a stage, beautifully lit and wonderfully performed, and lacking nothing for being removed from the setting you’ve just spent the last hour milling about in. The strength and skill of the performers is stunning, and there’s an unforgettable two-men-one-pole sequence performed by Nathan Boyle and Lewis West that was like nothing I’d ever seen. But despite all this, Depart remains utterly, utterly empty – an inexcusable use of a beloved public space by a company with no interest in its meaning, history or context, that left me wishing I’d just come for a walk round Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park on a night when it wasn’t full of acrobats.
Depart is on until 26th June 2016. Click here for more information.