Last year saw Trevor Nunn’s production of The Tempest, starring Ralph Fiennes, grace the Theatre Royal Haymarket, dividing critics with a format that, apart from surreal singalongs, was scrupulously conventional (see i-D online’s review here). Nunn’s version couldn’t be further from this radical new interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic, dreamed-up for the CREATE festival 2012, that is clandestinely running in a disused shop in Hoxton.
Approaching the venue for the performance, walking along Hoxton Street, it is likely the only sign of pageantry will be an imposing figure adorned in SS style army attire and peaked cap, pacing outside a derelict concrete building and forcefully ushering people round the back. The figure is Felix Mortimer who, having worked for immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, has set-up RETZ, a theatre company whose latest creation is an ambitious and immersive version of Shakespeare’s classic ‘The Tempest’ entitled ‘O Brave New World’; a combination of online video, installation and short film, partially inspired by the pioneering installation artist Mike Nelson.
“The Tempest’s plot is essentially made up of four distinct subplots,” explains Mortimer, “this meant that is was very easily to mashup the story into four short plays which could then be bound together by the mysterious world we had created around it, so that through the installations we see the stories unfold and all of Shakespeare’s exposition (and our own) could be told online or in our short films.” The action takes place in the fictional island of Borduria, a kind of Second World War, Orwellian dystopia, and the room is decked in fascinating relics and artefacts with Ariel, a robotic voice, emanating from a TV high up on the wall. The sinister ‘Big Brother’ presence brilliantly correlates the uncanny dreamlike mysticism at the heart of Shakespeare’s play with a modern alienation and paranoia of technological surveillance.
The story and installation change every few weeks, as the action moves to different parts of Borduria. The first setting is called ‘The Wrack’ and is based on the opening shipwreck section of the play where Trinculo, Caliban and Stephano, are the only parts. The characters are played as tramp-like urban wastrels swigging from bottles from behind the bar that, as well as serving drinks to audience members, becomes part of the performance.
“With ‘O Brave New World’ we wanted this to be contained in one space in Hackney, which doubles as a number of different fictional environments, so the story again transcends the boundaries which are usually found in performance,” says Mortimer.
The production undoubtedly rides the current trend of ‘immersive theatre’. However the show manages to avoid the kind of cringe-worthy practice that the term often constitutes. In fact the performance is so lively and the atmosphere so intimate that when the characters begun a crazed drinking and dancing spree, garrulous music blasting through antique speakers, audience members are ready and willing to jump up and play table football with Stephano, or less excitingly, play rock paper scissors with Trinculo. This production is also unique in that is probably the only set where, outside playing hours, it is either a café or a bar. In fact, the aim is to attract members of the public into the room, instigating a focus on community – O Brave New World is part of Hackney Council’s Art in Empty Spaces initiative and has procured funding from Hackney Council.
Running until July there is plenty of time to make your way down for an evening performance, or just at lunchtime for tea and cake. And Mortimer has more immersive exploits planned for the future: “We have a huge project planned for 2013 based on transforming audience members in Joseph K. of Kafka’s the Trial and seeing them thrust into a dystopic world of digital torment around Hackney… We just need to persuade Hackney to give us the space to make it happen first!”
The first setting ‘The Wrack’ runs at 297 Hoxton Street until Saturday 18th February with the others unfolding over the coming months. Head here to book tickets.
Text: William Severs
Photography: Hanna-Katerina Jedrosz