Chris Harrisson describes The North! The North! as ‘Extra-Live’, and in the aftermath I’m still getting to grips with what this means. He writes that extra-live is a continuation of the thought process behind staging relaxed performances, which are designed to be accessible to everyone. But although it’s definitely accessible, ‘relaxed’ isn’t the right word to describe the experience of watching The North! The North! – it feels anything but safe.
It’s also staggeringly immersive for a show which still keeps the audience and performer physically separated, where (as Harrisson promises) the actor doesn’t invite those watching onto the stage, nor does he leave the playing space to bring the story to us. But the audience is still uncompromisingly surrounded by it, by the sounds, sights, and pitch-black imagination of this dark fable.
Watching The North! The North! is like being told a story where you know the storyteller isn’t following all the rules, but you can’t put your finger on how and why the rules are breaking. There are chapters, which seem to progress in a linear sequence; there are characters, with a protagonist, allies, and enemies. But the hero has a violent double, girls vomit eggs, and people carry on talking when they really ought to be dead. The visual storytelling is so vivid that is starts to play tricks on you; a mimed gun is handled so carefully that it becomes visible without the use of a physical prop. It’s a one-person show but the world is full of different characters, and each one is distinctively and flawlessly realised by Harrisson’s controlled, specific, and vivid physicality.
The Bike Shed theatre is one of those distinctive venues that artists have to either work within or try to ignore – a brick-walled cellar, with a deep playing space, alcoves, and an uneven stone floor. The North! The North! doesn’t really take place there at all; it obliterates the Bike Shed and traps the audience somewhere else entirely. The overall effect of the animated projections and oppressive soundscape, together with the looming walls of the set, is to be held completely inside this imagined space.
Unless, like me and a couple of others before me, you have to leave. The North! The North! is not for the squeamish. I’m particularly bad with body horror, and as much as I tried to stay engaged with the story after a scene with a meat grinder, by the time it got to a man’s mouth being ripped apart and leeches wriggling out, I pretty much couldn’t hear anything except my own heartbeat. If Extra-live means that anyone and everyone can come and be part of the experience, I hope it’s also alright if anyone and everyone leaves halfway through. The part of this that rankles is how quickly the tone shifts – bearing in mind that as the audience first enter, it’s to an incongruous pre-set of Harrisson dancing slightly awkwardly and comically on a box. The turn in tone is rough and stark, and it’s noticeable that some audience members still tried to find laughs for the first ten minutes or so before falling into an anxious silence.
There’s no denying the power of The North! The North! to leave you at the mercy of your own imagination. Despite the fact that the projected visuals are cartoons, not CGI, the whole piece is completely, viscerally real. This is proper theatrical magic, as dark as it comes – you just needs a stronger stomach than mine if you want to know how the story ends.
The North! The North! comes to the New Diorama in London from 17-18 June 2017. Click here for more details.