As part of last year’s Mayfest, Bristol collective Stand + Stare transformed an empty shop on the city’s College Green into a cruise ship. In SS Arcadia, the audience moved around four storeys’ worth of walkabout theatre and participatory installations (casino, hair salon, fitness class and the like) while sinister fragments of narrative played out around them. Ambitious and imaginative, it proved to be one of the highlights of a festival which majored in similarly immersive and one-to-one experiences.
One year later, Stand + Stare’s proposition for Mayfest 2011 takes a slightly different tack. Rather than being passengers on the ill-fated Arcadia, the audience for The Guild of Cheesemakers are members of the eponymous and historic guild, called to a gathering in the beautiful Georgian church of St Thomas The Martyr in central Bristol. Under a reredos depicting what might well be the Sermon on the Mount (and, given the circumstances, recalls the ‘blessed are the cheesemakers’ gag in Life of Brian), we sit at impeccably laid tables, each with a glass of wine and a plate of three cheeses. For the next half an hour or so, everything proceeds as if this were a connoisseur cheese, wine and bread tasting session, complete with explanatory talks by representatives of real local companies, Trethowan’s Dairy, Hobbs House Bakery and Avery’s Wine.
While sampling organic cheeses, fine wines and artisan bread, we’re told about the provenance of ingredients, the perils of allowing sour dough to ‘die’, the benefits of traditional rennet and the underestimated qualities of a decent sherry. Except, of course, that this isn’t quite as ‘real’ as it seems. At some point someone who appears to be an audience member pipes up and asks whether the man from Trethowan’s Dairy has ever heard of a cheese called 198. He hasn’t, of course. 198, it transpires, is a ‘cheese’ which a Mr Spalding occasionally peddles in seedy bars and which purportedly arrived on Earth in the form of a meteorite and confers the gift of eternal life. The tasting session segues into its story – or, more pertinently, that of the people who’ve previously encountered it: guild leader Amelia Reed (Naomi Said) and Mr Spalding himself (Nick Young). Both are reputedly two hundred years old, lovers who have become addicted to this cheesy elixir but who now find themselves at loggerheads. She wants to destroy it (on the grounds that it’s mortality which gives life meaning); he still wants to live forever (on the grounds that… well, immortality’s fun).
As their story unfolds in the close confines of the guild ‘meeting’, the issue comes to a head – via a cameo interjection from Amelia’s father Cornelius (Henry Amphlett), delivered from the organ loft – and the audience is offered a taste of this supposedly wondrous cheese (which tastes suspiciously like brie) before voting on whether to mass produce it or get rid of it: mortality or immortality – that’s the guild’s choice.
As a dilemma, it’s one which dates back to Romantic tales like Frankenstein and Dracula, but by couching it in terms of modern-day foodie fetishism, Stand + Stare give it a pertinent twist. Far from merely being another piece of modish immersive theatre, The Guild of Cheesemakers lodges questions which cut to the quick of it: what price would you pay for more time on earth? Would you want to live forever anyway? Having lulled the audience into a false sense of security with all the talk of rind depth and other arcane cheese, wine and bread facts, Stand + Stare switch to an almost absurdly melodramatic sci-fi yarn before pitching up at this philosophical conundrum. In this particular instance, ‘the guild’ voted for mortality and cheered as the ‘meteorite’ went up in a puff of smoke.
Although not as ambitious in its staging as SS Arcadia, The Guild of Cheesemakers nevertheless proved to be a beguiling, thought-provoking and, of course, tasty experience, confirming Stand + Stare to be adept producers of theatre at its most up close and personal.