Saturday, 14 November 2015

The house is live...

WE ARE THE GHOSTS OF THE FUTURE opened last night to two sets of willing and courageous audiences, happy to be taken by the hand and led into the lives of strangers.

Here's our first review, written by Glenn Saunders of The Spell Of Waking Hours:

Our place: 7-ON’s We Are the Ghosts of the Future
We’re all familiar with digital content being present with us wherever we go, of being able to lose ourselves to the point of oblivion in a hand-held screen as real life happens around us, but the possibilities of immersive theatre are still relatively untapped in Australia. Sitting somewhere between art installation, theatre, and real-life do-it-yourself adventure storytelling, immersive theatre can be created on as large or as intimate a scale as the space and resources allow, with the intention that no two experiences are identical. British theatre company Punchdrunk are game-changing pioneers in this scene, and their work is nothing short of phenomenal, bringing “cinematic [levels] of detail” to large-scale installations in often unexpected locations.

Part of this year’s Village Bizarre festival in The Rocks, 7-ON’s We Are the Ghosts of the Future is a home-grown piece of immersive theatre set in The Rocks in 1935, on the day of Charles Kingsford-Smith’s disappearance. Whilst roaming around the Rocks Discovery Museum, the audience is given relative autonomy to wander in and out of rooms, building the (a?) world from the fragments and scenes we glimpse, the people we meet. Particularly memorable and powerful are the cross-dressing policeman, the abortionist (or ‘kind gentleman,’ to use the period’s euphemism), and the artist and the idiot savant (or ‘holy fool’). Street urchin children run throughout the building, trying to steal hats or delivering letters, and they are kind of like a ball of red string which connects each of the characters in this labyrinth.

Being staged in the Rocks Discovery Museum brings its own challenges – display cases and didactic panels are expertly covered up with clothing or sheets, cloth stitched together in a patchwork fashion to simulate washing on a line or small hastily erected rooms in a larger space. Production designer Hugh O’Connor has navigated the already pokey and finite space, and created a world from the past that feels relatively lived in. Alex Berlage’s lighting is similarly creative and inventive, and lends a crepuscular mood to some rooms, with light glowing through curtains or drapes, shadows flickering on walls. The voices of the characters, the feet on the stairs, the creaking floorboards, all combine to create the feel of a boarding house which is very much alive.

Originally inspired by City of Shadows, Peter Doyle’s book of crime photographs from the early 20th century, the 7-ON playwrights group set about devising an immersive theatrical experience to be staged in the former Darlinghurst Gaol. After revisiting the idea and changing its focus and intention, the group created We Are the Ghosts of the Future, about the lives, loves, losses, and secrets of the inhabitants of a boarding house. Structurally, the piece contains seven isolated stories or small scenes, each for one or two characters; these scenes run in a continual loop for approximately forty minutes, before  we are ushered downstairs (and, weather permitting, outside) for the finale, where we receive the news about Charles Kingsford-Smith’s disappearance. For the most part, the play – as much as you can call the immersive experience a play – works, and it is to director Harriet Gillies’ credit that each story or fragment is as engrossing and fascinating in its own slice of the world, and that we are drawn into these characters’ lives for a brief glimmer of time. It is an enormous challenge to keep seven self-contained looped scenes fascinating for forty minutes simultaneously and, as an experience, it works rather well.

If the 7-ON group wanted to explore the idea further, or if other theatre-makers feel inspired to take up the daunting challenge of creating an immersive theatrical event, there are perhaps a few little things which could make the experience not only more involving, but make the adventure come alive a little more. Perhaps if the characters’ stories intertwined more, if we saw the interactions between them as they moved about and through the house, going about their daily routine – washing, cleaning, ironing, sewing, mending, cooking, painting… Taking a lead from Punchdrunk’s example, where audiences are actively invited to follow a character (or characters, if you’d prefer) for the evening, there is the potential here for seven completely different journeys through the house, and it is up to the individual audience members to piece the house together, to try and work out where the characters all fit with regards to each others’ lives. There are a couple of characters who appear in the hallways, in the back of scenes, but have no lines or are not visibly part of any scene – could they have more to do, or more of a part to play in the story of the house?

While similar in idea to Mongrel Mouth’s The Age of Entitlement at last year’s Rocks Bizarre Village Market, We Are the Ghosts of the Future is more cohesive, more clearly thought out, and executed in a much more thorough manner. There are several quite moving glimpses of joy and emotion, quiet tender pockets of private despair and pain, which we are privy to for mere seconds, but they give us a window into a time where there were still parts of the world unknown and unchartered, where the streets were rougher and harder and crueller than we’d care to imagine, and where life was eked out by sheer determination and courage.

There is compassion and heart here, if you step inside the door on Kendall Lane …
Photography: Phyllis Wong

Till November 28: Book now.

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