Who needs theatres? Not me. And neither do a whole host of theatre companies in Edinburgh this year who are changing the nature and setting of the theatrical experience for audiences around the world. The fact is, with so many companies turning derelict rooms, cityscapes and secret buildings into absorbing performance spaces, the presence of stalls, a proscenium arch and even a stage has started to feel just a little bit dull.
The idea of an audience sitting in rows of chairs watching actors performing on a stage has served a purpose for, oh I don’t know . . . millennia . . . and yet it took me practically no time at all to lose all interest in theatre as we know it. After just an hour and a half en route in Edinburgh with Total Theatre Award nominees One Step at a Time Like This, taking my seat in a row full of people to sit motionless and watch another of the Traverse Theatre’s more conventional offerings felt downright unimaginative. In fairness, En Route is probably not a legitimate comparison for anything else, as it is nigh on impossible for even the most absorbing drama to make an audience member feel as integral and involved as a piece constructed with them intentionally at the centre. Yet as my feet itched to get up and explore, I knew that something had clicked, and that my love affair with theatres would never be the same again.
The main problem I now have is with the inherent artificiality and confines of the theatrical space. With theatres we are asked to enter and exit, the time in between filled with the drama and performance. As such, even the most compelling and memorable piece starts to ebb from the moment the applause begins and the house lights go up. You walk out of a theatre, desperately trying to keep a grasp on the memories, but as soon as you emerge into the real world that battle is lost. En Route solves this problem completely by creating theatre in the real world – when your everyday surroundings are the stage, you never feel like you have to leave.
If En Route was the nagging doubt that all was not well in an hitherto harmonious relationship, then Belt Up Theatre became my full-blown illicit affair with something much more exciting. York Theatre Royal’s resident company have no time for stages or seats – the audience are squashed together around the edge of the room on floor cushions and the arms of sofas, and if you happen to be sat in front of a drawer that a character needs to open then you’ll just have to move (not to mention what happens if a strange nymph decides they want to use you for a pillow). When it ends you leave – simple as that. To applaud would be crass after such poignant and moving performances, and so you are thanked for coming to Antigone’s funeral, shown out past Gregor Samsa’s lifeless body, or ordered out as the surrealist dream crashes around Dali and Magritte. With no clear ending or release of tension, the magic that they have created stays with you for long after.
Of course, all good things must come to an end, which it did with David Leddy’s Sub Rosa. It wasn’t just that it was the middle of the night and I frankly couldn’t be arsed to traipse around from room to room for this gruesome, gothic promenade tale of the dark dealings of the Victorian music-hall. It was rather that instead of creating an immersive space for theatre, all they had done was construct a number of stages in a series of rooms, forcing us to sit and watch each one in turn rather than discovering or experiencing them for ourselves. The old Masonic lodge where the performance was held was fascinating, creepy, and to explore it a rare privilege: but I wanted theatre, not a guided tour. Where Belt Up had not left a single detail go unobserved, the modern laminated signs and fire exit instructions that greeted our promenade around Sub Rosa spectacularly destroyed any illusion.
Before I went to Edinburgh I had a long list of plays to book in London for when I got back. Now I just can’t find the motivation. Even the best things in the West End will be boring compared to the experiences I’ve enjoyed at the hands of these companies and I no longer want to sit passively as an audience member while the actors have all the fun!