The Styx is not a swirling great river of hate but a small trickle of an affair in Rift’s new immersive piece at their HQ in Tottenham Hale. A jingling jangling Charon, with coins pasted onto his worn suit, occasionally rakes through the inches-deep water collected in a small tarpaulin moat dribbling out from the industrial unit and under a small arched bridge. Audience members yet to be presented with a card which reads “You are dead, please report to Styx for processing” nervously watch from the banks of an outdoor bar as he collects ejected coffins filled with the ones who have gone before, sometimes spraying their closed eyes with drops of water (Achilles-like, as if to make them invulnerable).
The build up, the witnessing of this little ritual, encourages a certain kind of expectation. It also defies our popular beliefs about where the underworld / Dis / Hades could be located. Can it really be here, on a small, run down and dilapidated industrial estate in North London – in amongst the weeds and rusting pipes, the remnants of the 1890s and the industrial revolution, where weekends and the urban man were born? But appearances are deceptive and once inside the unit’s limited and small rooms, a confusion of events unfold. Held for a moment in a dour funeral parlour where people scurry about Kafkaesque in bland cheap suits, the complexity is further muddied by a voice in my ear relating a story transforming London’s present day Hampstead Heath into the marshes of Hades or the Fields of Mourning so imaginatively that it claws for attention far more than the immersive theatre that links in with it. But characters take one by the hand and pull this way and that.
A man called Daniel (who is also in the audio story) waxes poetic about the pollution caused by thousands of cremations, suggesting vaporisation as an alternative. In the headphones, his story falls in and out of my ears and merges with a narrative voice that is, perhaps, meant to be me. But who that me is, as, in my mind’s eye I watch humans burning at the stake for horrendous or non-existent crimes, becomes confused. And I find myself too busy trying to work it out to care when I am blindfolded and moved around a deathly swamp, jigged up and down on a cart, or half tied to a tree in a mock sacrifice, again blind.
In fact, the audio piece lets the imagination run riot far more than the muddled events in the immersive theatre ever can, which hinders, rather than increases, the audio story’s odd nightmare-like effect. In the end, although it is satisfying to experience the clash of an underworld that draws inspiration from classical antiquity with a story that is Christian with its redemptive, if not strange and ambiguous, ending, the experience feels strangely empty – strangely distant to a Western consciousness that is now informed by multitudinous religious and cultural traditions. Initially promising much more, Styx feels like it does not quite live up to its name. Thomas McMullan’s script burns bright but the immersive experience feels flabby and less poignant.