As perfect an opportunity as lockdown is to watch all the films or read all the books you have never quite gotten round to, these activities lack the particular magic that comes with a communal cultural experience – what Martin Scorcese calls the ‘electrifying’ chemistry between a show and its audience.
Thank goodness, then, for Zoe Seaton, who has devised genuinely groundbreaking theatre to be streamed to our homes on software that was originally designed for business meetings. Operation Elsewhere is both complexly heartfelt and fantastically absurd, and I don’t think I have laughed so much since quarantine began.
The madcap premise of the show feels entirely suitable for an audience now deep into its second month of lockdown. With ‘Zoom magician’ Sinead Owens making shamelessly melodramatic use of greenscreens throughout, we begin in a conversation with the neurotic head of security (Cillian Lenahan) at an anonymous airport. He reveals that we are not about to board any conventional flight – as if that would be possible anyway, at the moment – but instead are to travel to Elsewhere, a mythic land based on the Irish heroic landscape of Tír na nÓg.
Seaton draws her plot from a collection of dark Irish mythological tales by Jane Talbot, with protagonists Dave (Keith Singleton) and Anya (Rosie McClelland) acting the parts of Tír na nÓg lovers Oisín and Niamh. Colin (Rhodri Lewis), a Bonnie Tyler-obsessed Welshman in a wedding dress, is a changeling from Elsewhere who switches places with Anya at the altar of her wedding with the help of deranged birdman Sweeney. We, the audience, are the heroic force tasked by warrior woman Scatha (Nicky Harley) to return Anya to the mortal realm.
The play was not devised specifically for lockdown, but it is note-perfect in capturing the zeitgeist. The loneliness of Colin stuck in isolation in a foreign world is the driving force of the plot, while travel and action in the play is only possible to conceive through the extreme suspension of disbelief. The chance to stream recordings of old productions by the National Theatre and others has been a wonderful tonic of late – but Operation Elsewhere reminds you that there is nothing quite as powerful as experiencing live-action contemporary theatre.
Elsewhere is ‘the land that used to be here but now is there’ or the ‘place that exists between the tic and the toc’. The writing is an intoxicating combination of absurdist set pieces and improv, and riddling Irish lyricism and idiom uttered by the enigmatic yellow-beanied narrator or ‘pooka’, Chris Grant. The story is seamlessly carried by a stellar cast working together despite their isolation to really transport us to the Emerald Isle.
In normal times, Big Telly specialises in adventurous promenade theatre, and the skills the company have at managing practical requirements at separate sites while keeping the audience engaged are evident throughout. The fourth wall is entirely smashed in this production, as we are belted instructions through our webcams to assist in the rescue of Anya. Like all the best fantasy stories, the play is pure escapism – something that is all the more remarkable given how impossible it has been to ‘escape’ over the previous weeks and months.
Operation Elsewhere feels revelatory. While society has quite rightly celebrated remarkable resurgences in community values as we support those affected by coronavirus, there is something so wonderful about being alone with strangers again in an audience, drawn together only indirectly through our shared love of theatre. The play is a ray of hope, reminding us for an impossible moment all that will be out there for us to enjoy again once coronavirus has passed.
Operation Elsewhere is currently playing until 5 May 2020. For more information and tickets, see https://www.creationtheatre.co.uk/whats-on/operation-elsewhere/