The best virtual reality game I have ever played was a narrative horror game called A Chair in a Room. I bought a Google Cardboard viewer for £6 to ‘play’ it through my phone. The makers of the game suggest that you sit in a spinny chair for the best experience – though you couldn’t move back and forth, or interact with the space in any depth, you could look all the way around it. In fact, the great pleasure of A Chair in a Room is that you can’t move; you are trapped on your chair, and the terrors of the space are coming for you. You are simultaneously voyeur and victim.
A similar sense of witness and entrapment runs through Whist, a dance-theatre offering with a difference from AϕE. We are led into the Lilian Baylis Studio, which, this evening, is filled with angular sculptures, some in the process of melting into black vinyl puddles. For the duration of the ‘performance’ we will be wearing headsets that cover our eyes and ears, an upscale version of my Cardboard (but a budget version of, for example, the Oculus Rift – the headsets still use phones). Via the phone’s camera, each of the sculptures triggers a film which we can watch, sitting, standing or lying still, through 360 degrees.
We are informed, in the slightly too lengthy introduction, that the things we choose to look at inform the shape of the story we follow. There are 76 different pathways, and there are sculptures/scenes some people simply never see. I am not sure how precise this algorithm is, but at one point I find myself on a dinner table, with three diners – two men and a woman – around me. I am standing in the serving dish; as I look down, I realise I am standing in a bowl of raw hearts. I am powerless to stop the diners plucking them from around my ankles. Voyeur, victim – I feel that I shouldn’t be here, but here I am, and they’re eating me.
In another scene, in another room, I am sat in a chair – I look down and can see a man’s legs, ‘my’ legs, but when I twist to look behind me, I can only see the back of the chair; there’s a shadowy, spooky sense I’m possessing someone’s body. Across the room, a woman dances over and under a sofa, twisting sensually, her face a come-hither rictus. When she disappears, I look around in alarm, only to discover that’s she crawling out from underneath me. I know she can’t touch me, but a flush of shock spreads through me anyway.
Each scene is performed without dialogue, half acted and half danced, with the performers frantically plucking at and ritualistically rearranging the spaces, all of which seem to be in the same crumbling house. The atmosphere is one of a ghost story brought to life, and certain scenes take a profoundly surreal turn. Art history references litter the films like debris litters the rooms. Whist is haunting in more ways than one.
It’s impossible to know exactly what is going on, or how each character relates precisely to another, or what the chronology is, but the separate scenes each suggest a new piece of the puzzle. In many ways, it reminds me of Punchdrunk’s style of immersive theatre, which relies heavily on aesthetics, nuance and seductive suggestion (in fact, performer Tomislav English and artistic director Aoi Nakamura are both former Punchdrunk performers).
Less convincing is Whist’s framework. Directors Esteban Fourmi and Aoi Nakamura spent a lot of time discussing Freudian psychoanalysis with psychoanalysts at the Freud Museum, and the scenes and symbolic actions in Whist correspond to his theories. At the end of the performance, our headsets show us a number that correspond to the decisions we’ve made on our journey. We are encouraged to visit a website and type this number in, and we are essentially psychoanalysed. Apparently, my particular journey suggests I am hypersensitive and empathetic. This is broadly true – I cry at everything – but the website couches its words with the broadness and vagueness of a horoscope.
Scepticism about intent aside, Whist is a rather gorgeous, intriguing experience. Given that all theatre goers are essentially voyeurs, why not persuade them into the ultimate voyeuristic experience of walking in someone else’s shoes?
Whist is on at Sadler’s wells from 19 – 23 June 2018. Click here for more details.