The quality of site-specific work is inevitably dependent upon how well the setting complements the content of the show. The theatre company ARBONAUTS choice of Nunhead Cemetery is a suitably spooky location for their at-dusk immersive promenade experience Biped’s Monitor. The show is inspired by the Italian philosophical fiction The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino and follows the imagination of a young boy who, to seek independence, climbs a tree and there discovers an arboreal kingdom tailored to his fantasies.
This promenade experience certainly doesn’t disappoint in creating the surreal world of the young boy’s imagination. In the overgrown and wild entrance to the cemetery, there was a slanted banquet table behind which a Baron stands, ruling over four crazed aristocratic ladies and hunchback servants who scuttle like insects all over the graves. Choral call-and-response singing accompanies this surreal landscape. Although the vocals are suitably spooky, the choir members appear to be uncomfortable and hyper self-aware as the promenade audience surrounds them from all angles, affecting the focus of the world we are invited into.
The rest of the performers however, are extremely dynamic and highly physically engaging. Notable are the Baron’s four trapped ‘mad’ ladies who scuttle along the floor, creating a sense of unease in the audience as they redefine the meaning of ‘personal boundaries’. The most effective element of the production, however, is undoubtedly its design. Dimitri Launder (Designer) is one of the co-founders of ARBONAUTS with Helen Galliano (Director), and has run away with creating beautiful pared-down aristocratic costumes that reveal crinoline undergarments, corsetry and structural ribbing behind ball gown skirts. The deathly, skeletal feel of the costumes adds to the feeling of decay and dilapidation within the graveyard, and creates a visually intense world for the Baron to inhabit.
At the end of an hour of promenade exploration, the audience is gathered into the monumental cemetery entrance for a spectacular finale, with the Baron’s four girls proving just how physically able they are by sinisterly crawling all over his dinner table. As they begin to speak, however, this causes a dip in the performance’s energy as the vocal delivery is under-powering in comparison to the strong visual elements of the piece. The text is surreal and philosophical, and whilst it fits the unusual visual quality of the show, it doesn’t serve to create any deeper sense as to what this entire experience is about. Launder and Gallianio’s design and concept are fantastic, but without a narrative, it feels like we are being offered an experience, rather than a theatrical show.
Biped’s Monitor is the sequel to ARBONAUTS first production, The Baron’s Banquet performed in Bermondsey in 2011. Funded in part by IdeasTap, ARBONAUTS specialise in creating environmentally sustainable site- specific work. Lit entirely by candlelight and mainly using the resources Nunhead Cemetery already has to offer, ARBONAUTS certainly delivers on creating a great night out with a low carbon footprint. Biped’s Monitor is perfect for thrill seekers, horror fanatics and those who are seeking unconventional theatrical experiences. I look forward to seeing which space where the next piece of work, The Desire Machine, will take over.
Biped’s Monitor played at Nunhead Cemetery in August. For more information visit the ARBONAUTS website.