Review: The House of Cenci, Parabolic Theatre
4.0Overall Score

If you’re enjoying our content, then please consider becoming a member, with every penny going towards keeping paying AYT going and paying our very talented team of young creatives. For more information, visit:

In 1598, Beatrice Cenci bludgeoned their tyrannical father Count Francesco to death following years of physical and emotional abuse. She and her sister Lucrezia were then beheaded, while her 12-year-old brother Bernardo was imprisoned. 

The Italian aristocrat’s story has inspired countless artists over the centuries, from Caravaggio to Percy Shelley. Now, in our brave new world of coronavirus, it provides the storyline for something truly unique. Immersive specialists Parabolic Theatre are telling the sorry tale of The House of Cenci through a blend of live online theatre and text-based video game. 

The video game involves a trip into the house itself, which is evoked through a richly descriptive script (“The conservatory is a palace of shards and empty panes”) that is splashed across the screen. We are taken through ‘the portrait hall’, ‘the art studio’, ‘the chapel’ and ‘the Pagan ruins.’ We pick up objects, letters and maps as we navigate the house, and we are faced with riddles and puzzles as we head deeper inside. 

The story takes place within the family’s house in three different eras – 1599, 1971 and 2021 – which are travelled between using a number of magic door handles (!). It is a family saga on a hugely ambitious scale: In all, the cumulative run-time of all the show’s parts is north of ten hours, anchored around three different Zoom performances that take place with about a week between them. Each performance consists of three or four separate conversations with characters, and the Zoom links are found in different corners of the house. Thus when you find yourself speaking to the Cardinal (Ed Cartwright), Lucretzia (Ellie Russo) or Olympio (Ewan Bagshaw), it is as though you really did stumble across them in some forgotten nook of the mansion.

The House of Cenci is certainly not for the idle theatre-goer. It demands its viewer’s attention at all times. Miss one part of the narrative, or fail to ask the right question during the Zoom call, and that could cost you your entire understanding of what is going on. It takes a considerable amount of energy to remain fully immersed in the story. 

Nevertheless, if you commit to the play, the rewards are bountiful. Showrunner Zoe Flint revealed in a recent interview that there are “120,000 words in the game code” – a marathon effort, which translates into a play that is incredibly rich in detail and ambitious scope. The more you explore the house in its different eras, the more you will learn about the history of the family even beyond the points immediately necessary to the plot, and the more you will get out of it. 

The other thing about The House of Cenci is that it really is gripping stuff. You feel totally involved in the story at hand, and I found myself eagerly anticipating future different Zoom calls and the chance to meet the characters I was learning about during the game. It is a world rich in secrets, intrigue and dark passions. But also, as is the case with all the best adventure games, there is a profound sense of personal development as you navigate the show, with a chance at redemption at the end. 

A year into lockdown, Parabolic Theatre have proved that even immersive theatre – whose essence might be thought nigh on impossible to capture remotely – can be effectively devised and performed online. The House of Cenci is not simply an adequate surrogate for drama that we cannot currently see performed in a theatre. It is instead a genuinely exciting and boundary-pushing creation that could not have been created with quite the same magic in any conventional theatrical setting. 

The House of Cenci is playing online. For more information and tickets, see Parabolic Theatre’s website.