Getting a ticket to Punchdrunk’s new show (an experience for two people, one of only 800) felt like a very, very big deal. Like glimpsing a shiny golden ticket in a chocolate bar. Or patiently waiting at the front of a queue for the new i-phone. Or, in the case of the show’s actual storyline, like being plucked off the teeming streets of London by an obscure Ancient Grecian cult, and sent off in quest of the divine.
It all started with an audio-guide tour of literary London, heavy with biographical detail about the Bloomsbury set and their incestuous dealings in fetching Georgian squares. The focus on avid translator-poet Ted Hughes was the only signpost to what came next – which was a lurch into the Classics signalled by a thunderclap, and a voice which urged us into the British Museum.
Among the cases of immaculately lit artefacts, we were led to relics of the Kabeiroi cult, the voiceover lent new cinematic power by surging music – and then, in front of a trio of writhing, headless statues, a wide-eyed older woman stared us down, and set us off on our mission with a kind of weary, portentous sorrow.
The ending aside, this opening hour was probably Kabeiroi‘s most powerful – or maybe this is my low stamina talking, because this was the hour before I got footsore and soaked through trudging through some of the city’s most touristy (and achingly familiar) streets. It had this power to overlay the real world with a sense of something magical, vastly significant, thrumming just out of reach.
It’s a sense that’s familiar from Punchdrunk’s (rather more labour intensive) set design at previous shows. Dredging up my memories of them sets off a kind of pile-up of overwhelming visual and sensory experiences. A candle-lit room, papered with butterfly wings. Air thick with scent. A door that opens up onto a vista of unimaginable vastness.
By making the city its set, Kabeiroi relies on narrative to transform familiar streets. Punchdrunk’s narratives have often been the weak link – partly because the logistics of tracking down the actors in a vast venue are so difficult, and partly, I think, because the writing feels a bit secondary compared to the vast visual spectacular at play.
What I struggled with, during Kabeiroi‘s long treasure hunt-style mid-section, was its narrative thinness. Lacking the lyricism or poetic ambition to link Ancient Greece and modern London, its words left an unbridged distance between the reality of what we were actually doing, and the repetitive, ominous, slightly purple prose ringing in our ears. We were spurred on with words about gathering storms, winds, libations of wine and furious maenads. We were spurred on through drizzly, student-strewn streets, full of tacky shops and interminable traffic lights. We were entrusted with a divine mission. We were entrusted with undertaking tasks which primarily involved dialling mobile phone numbers off small stickers attached to lamp-posts – or collecting small objects from storage lockers.
I’m probably a bit literal-minded for this kind of thing, but this distance periodically jarred – especially in the long sections where the phone stopped buzzing and I wasn’t sure where we were going next. I started to wonder: How many burner phones does one cult have? Is a treasure hunt really the best way of testing novitiates’ commitment? And most of all, I hunted for some kind of overarching narrative that didn’t feel that accessible: we picked up an old book that seemed like it would be a would-be cultist’s goldmine, but it just reinforced the party line about the Kabeiroi – that they’re a mysterious cult who worshipped equally mysterious gods, probably in secret rituals that involved copious amounts of wine.
In the midst of much trudging, we were separated in a not-especially-dramatic kidnap-type situation in a fancy hotel. Then, we made our separate ways to a mystery location that turned out to be a warehouse in Tottenham Hale.
I was told to memorise an Ancient Greek prayer while taking the tube up there, and in a rare outbreak of rebelliousness, I disobeyed. Some context: it was late. I’d been walking/running for hours, in the rain, for reasons that remained obscure – at one point squinting to read a phone number of a drain cover while multiple passers by asked if I’d dropped my (non-existent) wedding ring. So I made a half-hearted stab at the prayer, then bought a naff cornish pasty instead, and sat on the Victoria line enjoying both it and that nice tingling feeling in your soles that follows hours of pavement pounding.
The performance’s final half-hour felt so different that it was almost another show – or an excerpt from the wet dreams of one of those Punchdrunk superfans who chases round performers for one-on-one moments.
It had an amped up, star-of-your-own-movie escapism that was by turns frightening, maddening and pretty amazing. It’s also something that’s different depending which storyline you experience. For me, it involved being blindfolded, led to a room where women shouted at me for not remembering more than a few lines of prayer (I swear no one could have swallowed all 28 lines), followed by a very long interlude of holding out my arms while water dripped into the bowls I was holding in each hand, as crackly Greek-sounding music played. (This was SO uncomfortable but yoga fans probably would have found it mildly spiritual.) And then I got rescued, did a little more chasing about warehouse corridors – and then, finally, had a stunningly lit, blisteringly beautiful encounter with the gods that lasted all of five minutes.
Punchdrunk artistic director Felix Barrett’s first one-on-one show, made while he was studying at Exeter University, culminated in the audience member being pushed into a swimming pool. That feels like a neat metaphor for how he sees immersive theatre – literally, well, immersive. But at its worst, it also means relying on shock tactics, on non-consensual contact, on prioritising adrenaline over emotional weight.
Kabeiroi must have been an utter logistical nightmare to organise, halfway between a particularly involved package holiday and a kidnap. At points, a small crew of actors (as well as a horde of unseen stage managers) must have been tracking the movements of 14-odd people around a huge area of London – sending pre-recorded messages, leaving voicemails, and popping up in person for the odd moment of high drama. Given all this, it’s unsurprising that there were a few awkward ‘what now?’ type moments of hanging around, as the unseen cogs were jammed by a wayward audience member, somewhere, having their own equivalent of the cornish pasty moment.
I didn’t really mind this. But it fed into the performance’s biggest macro failing, which was its determination to trial every immersive/interactive theatre trick in the book, at the expense of giving the audience the time and tools to emotionally invest in their adventure. When I was waiting around, I wasn’t worrying about the fate of characters who I’d met for all of ten seconds – I was wondering if I had time to go for a wee, or whether/when the performance would shift into another, more compelling gear.
It’s unfashionable to talk about ‘suspension of disbelief’, and mostly I don’t think it’s that helpful a concept – but I think that when you’re making immersive theatre, it’s one that’s hard to ignore. I desperately wanted to feel, as well as to be told, that I was in danger. But, often, I couldn’t.
The moments I felt most deeply were the being-pushed-into-a-swimming-pool style ones. Twice, I had my chest grabbed in the street. I quickly realised the assailants were actors (suspiciously healthy looking, eyeliner) but there was still the about-to-get-mugged horror in there – given how much women experience and rightly fear street harassment, it felt a bit ‘off’ that it was me who was targeted for this stuff, not the substantially less nervy man I was traipsing about with.
In Kabeiroi, Punchdrunk tried out a lot of formats – headphone-led exploration, treasure hunt, one-on-one experience – that other theatre companies have experimented with and made their own. What they didn’t try is the stuff that immersive theatre companies are increasingly exploring, which is the idea of care – and the unspoken contract between performer and audience member.
I’m not saying I wanted to be handed some kind of exhaustive 50 Shades of Gray-style contract, bristling with every way that a performance can invade your boundaries. But although I was broadly okay with being grabbed, walking for hours, being shouted at while blindfolded for long periods of time, and running up and down flights of stairs in the dark, it would be totally reasonable for an audience member not to be, and it’s not clear what contingency Kabeiroi has in place for those scenarios.
Coney followed its headphone-based performance Adventure One with a long debrief in the pub. In The Smile Off Your Face, Ontrorend Goed treated blindfolded audience members with extreme gentleness. Commonwealth ended Our Glass House with a deeply researched discussion about the performance’s themes of domestic violence. Brian Lobel preceded his performance You Have To Forgive Me with a 94-part questionnaire for audience members.
What these examples have in common is that these creators showed a genuine interest in people’s experiences of their performance, and an awareness of how it might pattern onto each audience member differently, filtered through their own individual disabilities, memories, neuroses and outlooks on life.
Kabeiroi was an impressive feat in itself, an intricately stage-managed, complex convergence of a lot of interesting trends in immersive theatre. Where it fell down was where it intersected with the worlds beyond its own, self-contained little Greek cult. It didn’t intersect with ‘real’ London, not really – its story had only the thinnest of bonds (a goddess statue here, a sacred symbol there) to tether its narrative to the infinite, richer histories of the city we spent so much time crossing.
More importantly, its narrative only rarely intersected with the emotional trajectory of an audience member who’s giving it five hours of their time. It didn’t have the capacity to respond to their inevitable feelings of fear, awkwardness, boredom, confusion, fatigue – much less to offer comfort. It was a game, built on obedience to instructions, rewarded with moments of sensual majesty. A game that quietly converted you, lucky you, from engaged audience member to avid consumer: one who’s left waiting patiently, unthinkingly for the next big moment of shining spectacle.