What is immersive theatre for? Increasingly used as a crowd-pulling buzzword, and a catch-all phrase that covers promenade, site-specific, site-sensitive and interactive theatre, its challenge to proscenium theatre is sometimes rather clumsily launched. It is occasionally staged in a way that is totally irrelevant to the text or inspiration it works from. Sometimes ‘immersive’ means ‘we will build an entire film studio and Californian desert town in a former post office in such exceptional, idiosyncratic detail that you will wonder around it for three hours and come out profoundly altered psychologically and erotically’; sometimes it means ‘there aren’t any seats and you might get splashed with water, maybe’.
When Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths’ announced itself as ‘immersive’, I was intrigued but ready to feel jaded. What would Eugène Ionesco, a master of French avant-garde theatre, whose absurdist work interrogated, with great humour and compassion, the strangely meaningless yet terribly poignant fact of human existence, make of his work being blended, adapted and advertised under the catchword du jour? Well, if he had seen Marianne Badrichani’s clever, sensitive and immensely entertaining adaptation, I think he would have been rather pleased. In fact, in his theoretical writing, he once complained that as a child he found no joy in going to the theatre because it gave him no pleasure or ‘feeling of participation’. Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths’ directly addresses this disengagement. For once, the use of the word ‘immersive’ is not only justified but used for more than marketing purposes.
In its current incarnation at Latvian House in Queensway, audience members are seated around an enormous long table, with a glass of French wine and a dinner plate with a blindfold. At one end sits Lucy Russell’s Mrs Smith, at the other end sits Sean Rees’s Mr Smith. We are at a dinner party with them, although they can hardly be said to be fully present with one another. Their conversation is absurd, filled with non-sequiturs and bizarre observations about the life of an English suburban family. They are joined for dinner by Mr and Mrs Martin (David Mildon and Edith Vernes), who have a delightfully camp and winding conversation about their conviction that they have met before – they are, of course, married.
So far, so Ionesco – this is, in fact, the script for The Bald Soprano (La Cantatrice Chauve), his first play. Sat at the table with the two dysfunctional (but recognisable) couples, the audience are complicit in the absurdity of middle class manners and the banalities that paper over the cracks that form in human connections. But it is Badrichani’s diversion that proves truly brilliant.
Sean Rees, who is a fine, pompous, blustery, fruity Mr Smith of truly vintage-BBC-comedy proportions, is handed a red necktie and becomes Ionesco himself. The cast question him about his life, his work and his influences. Rees receives the questions and responds in impeccable French (translated into English for the good of any monolingual audience members). His warm, shy, thoughtful Ionesco throws his Mr Smith into sharp relief; mannerisms are underlined and exposed, meaning and performance interrogated. And, sat at the table, the audience are transformed into far more conventional spectators, simultaneously immersed in and alienated from the action – Ionesco’s own criticism of theatre played out before them.
Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths’ isn’t all intellectual grandstanding, of course. It is a riotously comic play with a wonderful, energetic cast. Jorge Laguardia’s Spanish butler/fire chief is worth special mention for his slapstick charm, as is Lucy Russell’s brittle, crumpling Mrs Smith. Sean Rees, in his duel roles, is an utterly magnetic performer. And the immersion isn’t all theoretical either. Audience members are blindfolded, encouraged to chat using bilingual cues from Ionesco’s plays, plied with wine, subjected to some sensual (untranslated) word play (‘chat, châtelaines, chalet, chatte’). Audience members shouldn’t be too afraid of the bilingual nature of the piece; the complex French is translated and is, in any case, delivered with such care and clarity that it is possible to follow; the simple French can be understood through a mixture of schoolgirl vocabulary and giggle-inducing cast innuendo.
But although these things make for a fun evening, Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths’ is ultimately a sensitive, touching and funny adaptation that goes far beyond its buzzword.