The last two lines of W.B. Yeats’ ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ have long resonated with me, the way poetry you learn by heart when you are a teenager does:
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
It’s immensely vulnerable, yes, but there’s a pride in this vulnerability. The speaker is justly proud of being able to give up the most tender and fragile parts. They are also crushingly earnest. Let’s be fair, starting a review with an excerpt from a work of old-fashioned poetry is crushingly earnest, and not very cool, and not very radical. But it is precisely this earnestness – an unabashed, unironic joy in the sharing of a cared-for thing – that is so resonant here.
Quite often, immersive theatre is the ultimate exercise in cool, or at least in zeitgeist (though these days it is rarely radical). Immersive theatre companies strive to present packageable experiences for a culture increasingly focused on experiential entertainment over material acquisition; in less theory-eating words, audiences want to say they’ve Done Stuff. This, in turn, can create a monsterish audience bent on winning the experience, feeling entitled – by dint of having paid for their idea of an experience – to receive the performance in a personal wrapping paper.
The Droves, a new project by Coney, turns this on expectation on its head.
This isn’t to say that The Droves isn’t, in terms of format, a fairly standard piece of immersive theatre. We enter a ‘world’: a set, spread over several rooms, evoking, in this case, an abandoned carpet factory gone strange and magical. An evil carpet factory owner has been killed by the children he enslaved; now they run the factory, welcoming new children and turning those who reach adulthood out.
A red string guides us through musty, gloamy darkness filled with fir trees and glowing eyes, through bizarre basement bedrooms and secret hideaways lined with safes. We move through this subterranean world, meeting and interacting with curious characters to put the story together. In the case of The Droves, we also solve a series of mildly challenging puzzles and riddles to progress from room to room, bringing a fun escape room element to the proceedings.
What is new, and striking, about The Droves is that it has been conceived by, and is entirely performed by, children aged 6 to 11. In these circumstances, audience entitlement is subverted. There is a very real sense that dreams have been spread out under our feet. Immersive theatre lives and dies by its audience’s ability to take the worlds they enter seriously and abide by the rules; in The Droves, not only must they take it seriously, but they must make an effort to connect with these young dreamers.
If this sounds arduous, it isn’t. I have seen quite a lot of immersive theatre at this stage, and I have never seen an audience working so hard, and with such clear joy, for their performers. Coney have created a piece that has the giggly, energetically creative air of a game of make-believe. It feels fresh and new even where the format isn’t. And, let’s be real, kids are weird. At one point, I enter a room to find a small, smiling face peering out at me from a trembling mound of carpet – it’s some kind if hybrid child-carpet creature. I shriek with surprise, much to the amusement of everyone else. How did they come up with this stuff?
True, if you don’t much like children, or indulging children, The Droves would be boring and irritating. More to the point, if you go to immersive theatre expecting to be passively plunged into a high-tech, highly designed world and get some thrilling, polished interaction in which a professional actor chooses you and pulls you from your anonymous void, you’ll find The Droves frustrating. But Coney’s work with 609 children from across Tower Hamlets and beyond – some of whom only contributed in a single workshop, some of whom have worked on the The Droves for over a year – feels, to me, like immersive theatre done mercifully right.
The Droves is at CoLab Factory until February 24th. For more details, click here.