Over lockdown we’ve become accustomed to watching theatre through computer screens, but ThickSkin’s latest production asks its audience to watch through a VR headset. It immerses us in a story about escaping from inside imprisonment into the outside natural world. Its adroit display of creative imagination is impressive, but let down by less complex storytelling.
The show begins with an ominous announcement informing us we’re the lucky chosen one, before two protagonists appear in a decaying warehouse. The derivative plot invokes Metamorphosis and 1984, following our silent characters’ attempt to escape the confines of oppressive monotony. The robotic voice structures their daily routine with commands to “eat”, “sleep” and “work”; repetition reinforced by Neil Bettles’ electronic music and Jonnie Riordan and Jess Williams’ mechanical choreography.
Further intensifying the claustrophobia is the square box set which entraps both the characters and our static central viewpoint. The digital screen walls provide dark, gloomy backdrops or blindingly harsh light and colour. The performance really soars when it intermittently breaks out of these confines in reveries with poetic yearnings for shared connection and the transference of emotion which define reality and life.
This desire to ‘reach out and touch’ is vividly registered through the piece’s technical complexity, with slick video editing shuffling between backward/forward time, and disorientating sound or lighting effects fluctuating between muted and heightened sensory experience. However, this is undercut by the limitations of the storytelling which leave narrative developments unclear with no dialogue, sporadic narration and Dominic Coffey and Ayesha Fazal’s obscure facial expressions. This entices audience curiosity, but the characters feel underdeveloped without a backstory, personality or substantial relationship to properly resonate.
Such overt use of technology seems to also conflict with the themes of touch and human intimacy, while the slightly uncomfortable headset itself presents a barrier to fully losing yourself. Likewise, although Coffey and Fazal’s movement is well-choreographed and synchronised – often redolent of Frantic Assembly’s style of physical theatre – the piece relies on dance to convey its narrative rather than enhance it. Although the VR experience is invigorating, it leaves you questioning whether it validates itself as a piece of theatre or more of an elaborate gimmick. It often feels more cinematic than theatrical, led by a technical concept rather than narrative.
However, it’s a captivating piece of escapism, and for a company to come out of such an artistically stifling period with such striking ambition is remarkable in itself.
PETRICHOR is touring online and in venues until 13 December. For more information and tickets, see ThickSkin Theatre online.