Review: The Second Word from the Story of the Cage

The Second Word from the Story of the Cage is touted as a site-specific work in a disused air raid shelter telling a story of “the selfishness of gender, race and class”. The audience is made to sign a safety disclaimer, and split into different groups before being led into a darkened maze beneath the Hopton Gardens in Southwark… so far, so intriguing.

Unfortunately, for anyone hoping for an intelligent, enigmatic and inventive immersive theatre experience along the lines of Punchdrunk Productions, prepare to be disappointed.

The well-meaning and gentle intentions of Iranian writer and director Cyrus G Seif are readily apparent – the overarching, loose narrative of Cage draws on old-fashioned fables and fireside tales, but where the production ultimately falls flat is in the muddled ambiguity of what these fragmentary stories are supposed to tell us. Rather than seeming subject to personal interpretation, the scripted elements of Cage feel disparate, arbitrarily gathered, and are worst of all somewhat boring. This is walkabout mythology that feels lazy and over-reliant on the novelty factor, rather than thought-provoking in its lack of focus and elaboration.

Cage is not just site-specific, but site dependent. It is less a site-specific piece of theatre than a vaguely guided presentation of the air raid shelter below Hopton Gardens. This is a pity as the location is unique, atmospheric and rife with the possibility for a truly transformative theatrical experience. An audience wants to be entertained, at the very least, perhaps even challenged, and, at a stretch, moved – all wonderful possibilities presented by theatre at its simplest and strongest. Sadly, what Cage offers is initial amusement at its gimmicky dramatics, petering out into puzzlement and finally, disappointment.

You are made to hold on to the shoulders of the person in front of you horror-maze style, and walk around in circles in pitch, damp darkness for half an hour whilst barely-lit actors recite Shakespeare and trite monologues with all the finesse and conviction of bored students facing detention. When you finally emerge into the office-window lit hinterlands of South London, you are gently prodded into preparing a group presentation of interpreting some laminated illustrations with no discernible purpose other than to pad out running time. There was a palpable sense of boredom and discomfort in the freezing audience. The initial sense of novelty and expectation had transformed into confusion and frustration.

Seif has commented that the most important element of Cage is creating the sense that it is a spiritual experience and pilgrimage for the viewer. This might have been possible had there been more commitment and focus on developing a stronger script, and in conveying intelligent intention that challenges, compels and truly engages with its willing audience. As it stands, Cage serves as an unfortunate example that novelty cannot trump substance; good promenade theatre should transport both the audience and the story to unexpected places – location is and always will be just one factor and not the entire validating sum of a satisfying theatre experience.

The Second Word from the Story of the Cage is part of the Merge Festival and is running until 13 October. For more information and tickets, see the Merge Festival website.