Review: 1884, Shoreditch Town Hall

An interactive exploration of one of history's darkest episodes.

By: Apr. 22, 2024
Review: 1884, Shoreditch Town Hall
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Review: 1884, Shoreditch Town Hall What is the difference between a house and a home? And who gets to write history? Interactive experience 1884 provokes challenging answers to these questions in the context of an almost-forgotten historical event that had significant consequences for two continents.

The setup sees us welcomed into “Wilhelm Street” and separated into groups of seven arranged around a square table, each representing a home. Those arriving in pairs or more will be split up around the room (“the show is best when experienced with people you know less well”, we’re told). We’re soon introduced to the three main characters: MP Toni Robber-Baron (Ewa Dina) welcomes us in, 188.4FM DJ Charlie Morrow (Jyuddah Jaymes) keeps us entertained and updated via his sound desk and Postie (Chusi Amorós) pushes the early narrative along with hand-delivered notes. Occasional updates from a meeting are relayed to us.

Review: 1884, Shoreditch Town Hall
Photo credit: Alex Brenner

There’s no audience as such here, other than in an informal sense: most of the time is spent talking and listening to those around your own table which comes with a house floor plan. The first task given to us is to come up with a two-part house name based on a collection of suggested words. My personal preference was for “Blood Forest” but the consensus eventually settled on the more anodyne “Safe Strength”. From there, this exercise in forced democracy goes on to formulate a house knock, populate the house with furniture and define our annual traditions. 

After a while of this cheerful homemaking, a more authoritarian tone comes in via the meeting updates and we start to lose what makes our homes distinctive. By instinct more than instruction, people move from table to table to discuss a response and form alliances against these sudden changes. Things come to a head before the interval. The second part flips the script and gives us a different perspective on what has happened so far.

This work from the arts charity Coney and Rhianna Ilube, along with writers and game designers Tsitsi Mareika Chirikure, Chloe Mashiter and malakaï sergeant, can work on a number of levels. Its context (the 1884 Conference of Berlin) is mentioned on the website but not directly in this show before the interval even though there are some subtle nods like the names of the DJ and the inquisitive Harriet Stanley who pops up occasionally by our sides. Consequently, whether 1884 is intended as a direct critique of the event that formalised the Scramble for Africa and the colonisation of that continent or something more general is unclear.

Review: 1884, Shoreditch Town Hall
Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Some efforts to make this 1884 immersive but not enough to warrant that label: there’s a wealth of agency throughout as we define our home, but interaction with the cast is minimal other than Stanley and Postie’s fleeting visits. The open spaces between tables and the separating out of groups works against more convivial conversation. A more intimate style of audience engagement (as in, for example, Seth Kriebel’s A House Repeated) would have elevated and enhanced the core drama and messages at the heart of this experience.

At times, there’s a distinct feel of a dreaded corporate Away Day designed to promote collaboration between, say, the marketing and finance teams. The simple but effective table design helps foster discussion without being memorable or distinctive. The interactive elements are fun but, overall, there could be more here in terms of storytelling or staging to give purpose to the nebulous direction. 

Dramatically, the pacing is uneven with the first part dragged out and the post-interval scenes (the highlight of the evening) being too short. Characters are wafer-thin stereotypes who overstay their welcome. The political basis for the evening is almost skipped over in favour of more pointed commentary on how history is presented to modern eyes and by whom. With a running time of close to three hours and depending on your levels of patience, 1884 is either speaking truth to power or a long-winded history lesson.

1884 continues at Shoreditch Town Hall until 27 April.

Photo credits: Alex Brenner


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