Curious Flamingo’s Egyptian Extravaganza is part of Colab Factory’s immersive season and promises to be a fancy dress experience exploring Egypt in the 1920s and the dangers of cultural appropriation. Sadly the piece is neither immersive, nor grounded enough to start a conversation on appropriation.
Like many others, I have grown wary of the word ‘immersive’. For the last few years the term has become a sort of buzzword for both creative and marketing purposes, and many theatre productions happily call themselves ‘immersive’ even when their show has little to do with the practice. So upon entering the Colab Factory, sitting down in a bar that has a quite laboured atmosphere, I witnessed a guest who was approached by one of the actors in full costume and a drawn-on moustache for some pre-play interaction – I knew that I was in for a bumpy ride.
The show starts off in a decorated basement (mostly a lot of hanging fabric and fairy lights) with King Tut (Holli Dillon) inviting us to his party. He is fun and a little unhinged – but he is quickly interrupted by archaeologists, academics, people of Egypt and even Cleopatra (Samantha Theobald-Roe) herself. We are presented with various stories and legends from Egypt while being constantly reminded that what we think we know about Egyptian culture is probably inaccurate and filtered through various problematic sources. The piece repeatedly tries to seek authenticity, but seems as if it might need a taste of its own medicine.
The cast appear quite uncomfortable in this production, with a few of them still shaky on their lines. The energy is over the top, but due to the ‘immersive’ nature of the show this quickly becomes loud and irritating rather than entertaining. Dillon starts off strong as the carefree King Tut, but her impact fades slowly as her ad libs never end, eventually causing her to pull focus rather than add to the performance. Despite its aim to be immersive, director Rosalind Othen’s blocking is constantly fighting against the space, squeezing action into uncomfortably limited areas and often forgetting to account for its audience. The show would probably work without the immersive setup, as it takes more away than it adds to the production, as the design, although admirable in its effort for detail, ultimately falls flat and gives the space an amateur feel.
But my main concern watching this show was ethics. The show spends its last ten minutes sketching out something that was supposed to be a twist: the actors step out of their characters and address the audience directly. The questions ‘how do we define culture?’, ‘can we perform something we haven’t experienced ourselves?’ and even ‘can cultural appropriation be avoided?’ get demanded from an audience that was completely taken off guard, dragged out of an immersive comedy and suddenly dropped into some sort of forum theatre. Of course, these questions can and should be asked in a theatrical context, and I have nothing against performances taking risks and experimenting with the boundaries of the genre they set themselves in. But there was something incredibly ironic about watching actors in makeup and stereotypical ‘exotic’ clothing asking us about cultural appropriation and allowing us a few minutes to elaborate all the while the same sort-of-Egyptian-sounding music that had been playing throughout the piece is still whirring on in the background. With an audience who is not prepared to engage this way and with nearly no time at all the playing field is uneven and the discussion does not even have the chance to go beyond surface level. Suddenly the audience is placed in a situation it did not sign up for, with no appropriate platform to express itself.
Due to these unsolved problems, these rushed questions around culture were instantly trivialised by the piece, slapped onto the end just to make sure that they were tackled, turning the production inconclusive and unfortunately, nearly unethical.
Egyptian Extravaganza played at CoLab Factory until May 13.