BWW Review: Impeccable Worldbuilding the Highlight of Standing O's Immersive Theatre Experience IMMORTAL
Imagine stumbling upon an all but abandoned mansion. It might have once been a Victorian manor, one that has seen the Edwardian era come and go and which has survived a war or two. Imagine that this house and its inhabitants have slipped from memory, isolated from the outside world in a temporal bubble where time has stopped. Imagine that you have braved crossing the threshold of this place on a day when everything might change. Imagine that you can rifle through the papers, books and suitcases that are to be found in its rooms, and that you may follow those who wander its halls. This moment of active imagination is how IMMORTAL begins.
There is something utterly inspiring about IMMORTAL, the theatre experience currently playing two shows a night at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. Billed as the first-ever immersive theatre production of its kind in South Africa, IMMORTAL takes its cue from productions like those pioneered by companies such as Punchdrunk, perhaps the most famed of which is SLEEP NO MORE. Although it has been produced on a rather smaller scale than those the expansive prototypes on which it is modelled, with a steep learning curve to follow for Standing O Immersive Experiences as they continue to develop and refine similar offerings, it is exciting to see a new company going out on a limb to offer local audiences an innovative night of performance art.
An allegorically styled narrative plays out in IMMORTAL, with the characters named for social roles, occupations and mythological beings. All are involved in what adds up to a slight parable about the meaning of eternal life, whether one holds the secret oneself or whether one is subjected to it. Is it a blessing or a curse? Those who seek it might offer a different answer to those who live it, and the only way for audience members to draw their conclusions is through their voyeuristic observations of the characters as they move through the various rooms of the house created in the section of the Castle occupied by the production.
If one is fortunate, one might stumble onto the magnetic Kai Luke Brümmer's character of The Drifter sooner rather than later. His moving narrative strand sees him interacting with The Medium, portrayed by Skye Russell, who endows her role with a searching intensity well-suited to the character. A tender dance choreographed by Alice Kok between the two in a sand-filled room upstairs as well as the moving final scene of their storyline in a basement built for sacred rituals are both highlights of the production.
Brümmer is just as good when he gets confrontational with The Alchemist, played by Craig Morris with a streak of manic sadism. The other target of The Alchemist's attention is The Heiress, a woman whose hysteria is brought to life by Shannyn Fourie, whose sole defender is The Butler, a muttering bundle of good intentions in Glenn Swart's reading of the tole. Presiding over everything are The Sisters of Fate, played by Alice Kok, Liezel Swartz and Lee van der Merwe, who measure out mortality with a spindle, the thread of life and a pair of scissors.
The most successful overall element of IMMORTAL is its design, which sees scenic designer Nicola Mayer collaborating with costume designer Niall Griffin and lighting designer Chris Lotz. Together the three have crafted feast for the eyes that is nothing less than the most exquisite art installation. The attention to detail in set pieces like the tea-cup laden framework in the main hall or the upper-level clock-cage is second-to-none, even helping to flesh-out the paper-thin narrative elements using some carefully chosen motifs and symbols. The score and soundscape employed in the production also make an invaluable contribution to the evening's proceedings.
It is the story element of IMMORTAL that perhaps satisfies the least of all its multiple aspects. Written by director Joshua G. Ackerman, with assistance from Angelika Ronge and Kaylee Kantor, the piece struggles to negotiate its way from an outstanding concept into the rich story-scape that immersive theatre requires for its audience to leave with the type of individual transformational responses that appear to characterise the best examples of the form in practice. IMMORTAL has the strange double quality of having too much to see, and too little. On a first journey through the space, it was too easy to end up in unoccupied rooms or in occupied rooms that offered an incredibly fragmented experience of the piece. Indeed, it was only after a second trip through IMMORTAL that I felt I had seen enough of what was on offer to walk away with enough fragments to piece together something meaningful, simultaneously realising that had I taken a different path the first time around, I might have achieved the same thing then. A de facto looped approach like that which SLEEP NO MORE employed might have helped to ease these frustrations.
What was also largely missing from IMMORTAL were elements that separated the audience members from the crowd. While there are some direct addresses and gestures in the piece, the piece could have been elevated through the incorporation of the one-on-ones that one delights in reading about in blogs and social media posts about other immersive productions, whether they take the form of playful exchanges or quests. The whole journey from the ticketing station to the venue and through the bar to the production's opening moments could also benefit from some atmospheric world-building.
IMMORTAL is a production that holds a great deal of promise in establishing a tradition of immersive theatre in South Africa. Local audiences have seen a fair deal of site-specific theatre, especially at various festivals around the country, which often embraces its spectators uniquely, but immersive theatre has the potential to be an all-encompassing encounter unlike anything else. May Standing O's next event be bigger, better and richer, delving deeper into our collective consciousness, feeding our hunger for meatier narrative hooks and offering a more multifarious set of experiences for those who dare a dream themselves into a totally different world.
Tickets for IMMORTAL, which runs until 13 January, cost R195 - R235 and can be booked online through Computicket. Shows start at 19:15 and 20:30 nightly, with the Castle of Good Hope opening an hour earlier for ticket collections. A cash bar and refreshments are available at the venue.