Doctor Who, Monopoly Lifesized and the rise of immersive theatre
Basically, it’s like a live TV episode of Doctor Who but with the main part played by the audience,” says director Tom Maller, summing up in a sentence this summer’s biggest theatre show. He’s standing in a hexagonal-shaped room in a former Mayfair antiques market surrounded by banks of computers, with wires running crazy paving-style across the floor. People with headphones are walking back and forth, wearing masks and looking busy. It’s just over a week until the first preview and the team has a job on its hands. Most theatre shows require a single stage with a couple of sets. Doctor Who: Time Fracture occupies 2,700 sq m and features 17 different worlds.
Time Fracture is a brand new live incarnation of the long-running BBC show and has been two years in the making. Immersed within a series of immaculately detailed spaces that recall locations from across several decades’ worth of episodes, audiences must work together in Covid-friendly bubbles to save the world following a devastating time fracture, with occasional help from the Doctor (voiced by Jodie Whittaker and David Bradley on video link, and with audio appearances from Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy).
The trajectory of the story depends on audience choices, which means individual experiences will differ, although there will definitely always be Daleks. And although you don’t need to have seen any episodes to understand what’s going on, to have done so will almost certainly make things more fun: designer Rebecca Brower had full access to the BBC props archive and the production is littered with a huge number of real (and obscure) objects from the TV series, from Matt Smith’s Tardis monitor from series five, to a Sisterhood of Karn staff from the Tom Baker classic story, The Brain of Morbius, and a Torchwood silver tea service. “If you are not a Whovian you will have a great time,” says Maller, a veteran director of Secret Cinema, which specialises in immersive recreations of famous movies and encourages the audience to dress up accordingly – and a big Doctor Who fan. “But if you are, it will blow your mind.”
As theatre starts to awaken after the deep slumber of lockdown, there are early signs it’s emerging in a slightly altered state. Yes, you still can go to the National and sit in the dark and see Michael Sheen in a forthcoming production of Under Milk Wood, and hurrah for that. But across the capital new shows are popping up that dispense almost entirely with the traditional stuff – actors, scripts, fourth walls, the typical one-way relationship between action and audience – and instead place the audience at the heart of the action.
At a new theatre space on Tottenham Court Road later this summer you can turn all that lockdown Monopoly practice to good use in a live (and, blissfully, only 75 minutes long) version of the board game, Monopoly Lifesized, featuring immersive recreations of famous London locations, in which you and your friends must solve puzzles and challenges in order to buy up property as you move around the board.
At The Money, taking place at County Hall from the end of this month, the audience is the play. At each performance 15 volunteers sit together at a table and decide between them how best to spend the pile of cash (yes, for real) sitting in front of them on a table. They have just 60 minutes. Other members of the audience can buy their way into the discussion, and the decision has to be unanimous. “The show is like a magic trick – on the one level it’s very simple, but the reveal is, it always goes somewhere completely unexpected,” says director Seth Honnor, who conceived the show after watching an episode of Dragon’s Den. “The combination of money, unanimity and a ticking clock creates an extraordinary drama that always has its own outcome, and which can also be weirdly beautiful.”
Theatre that involves the audience in some way, otherwise known as immersive, is commonly associated in this country with companies such as Punchdrunk and dreamthinkspeak who, in the Noughties, combined classic stories and devised texts within beautifully designed performance spaces that immersed the audience, promenade style, inside the world of the story. Audiences roamed free, discovering plot points almost by accident (and sometimes missing them entirely). Yet shows such as Doctor Who take the concept to a whole new level. “In a Punchdrunk show the audience are essentially voyeurs,” says Maller. “Time Fracture audiences have a voice and a consequence: what they do affects what happens.”
So what’s driving this hunger for theatre that variously owes more to role play, board games, escape room experiences, even The Crystal Maze, than to the convention of sitting in a cramped playhouse watching Chekhov? The growing cultural influence of computer gaming and the virtual parallel worlds they invite players to “step into” is one – Brower consciously tried to emulate the 3D environments of video games in designing Time Fracture. Conversely, a rediscovery of the old-fashioned art of play and make-believe is another. Maller, who also directed The Great Gatsby, the UK’s longest running immersive show, which plunges audiences into the lovingly recreated jazz era of 1920s Long Island, believes modern audiences increasingly “love the chance to dress up, escape. We used to do this all the time as children, but modern life sucks it out of us. But real life is hard. Interactive theatre allows you to become someone else again. Also, we have so much passively consumed content thrown at us these days: Netflix, social media. I’ve noticed that audiences are desperate to be active.”
Not only that – they like to be active with their friends. “Gen Z like the social aspect of culture,” points out David Hutchinson, producer of Monopoly Lifesized. “They like experiencing art in groups – and talking about it in the bar afterwards.” And the nature of that experience matters. Honnor believes audiences simply get more out of a piece of theatre if they are allowed to be part of it. “I always include the audience in my work because it gives them a more profound experience,” he says. “Good art will keep asking questions, but if you can ask a question of your audience and then get them involved in trying to answer it, it’s really powerful.”
Time Fracture, The Money and Monopoly Lifesized have all been in development since before lockdown (The Money has played across the world, although County Hall is its first proper London run). But it’s not unrelated that the big theatre trend to emerge during the pandemic was not live streaming of archive shows but new genre-busting pieces that incorporated participatory games into the narrative, enabled to no small degree by Zoom. In Les Enfants Terribles’ highly amusing Sherlock Holmes tribute, The Case of the Hung Parliament, audiences were encouraged to collaborate to solve a murder case of byzantine complexity (if any team actually managed it, do let me know). In The Inquest, by online pioneers Jury Games, audiences had to work together to establish the truth behind a decades-old drowning.
“Covid aside, there has been a lot of talk about how divided and polarised we are these days, existing in our social media bubbles,” says Eleanor Lloyd, West End producer of The Money. “But a show such as The Money blows all that apart. What’s extraordinary is the extent to which, given the chance, we want to work together. Every performance of The Money inevitably turns into a conversation about what is important, how best to make a difference and how we as human beings can come to a consensus. Right now, that feels very valuable.”
Even so, purists may wonder what interactive shows that appear to prioritise “the experience” above all else really have to do with traditional theatre. Yet Lloyd argues that theatre has become increasingly detached from its audience over the past century or so, and that a more playful, inclusive format is in keeping with its original spirit, going back as far as the ancient Greeks. “Modern theatre likes to put the audience in the dark staring at a stage. That’s not what it was like in Shakespeare’s day,” she says. “When I produced Emilia in the West End [Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s 2016 play about the 17th-century feminist poet Emilia Bassano] we deliberately left the house lights on, partly because the production originated at Shakespeare’s Globe, but also because we wanted the audience to be aware of the collective experience. That desire to be part of something has always been there, and it’s manifested quite specifically in these experiential shows. After the year we’ve had, it feels more important than ever to come together.”
Doctor Who: Time Fracture is at 1-8 Davies Mews, London W1, from 26 May, immersivedoctorwho.com
The Money is at County Hall, London SE1 from 26 May, themoney.live/
Monopoly Lifesized is at 213-215 Tottenham Court Road, London W1 from August 14, monopolylifesized.com
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