Wondermart / Guru Guru / The Hotel / Sporadical / Noir / The Event
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2009

I’m not nearly as unobtrusive as I like to think. For heaven’s sake, the other day I found myself sharing a doorway with, and dwarfing, even comedian Phill Jupitus. Nevertheless, this week I went undercover briefly. Performance company Rotozaza, who have become increasingly interested in shows which turn the audience into performers, directed through headphones, have two offerings on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. For Wondermart I was issued with an iPod containing a half-hour soundtrack, given directions to a city centre supermarket, and told to follow the instructions in my ears. The supermarket don’t know about it: as far as they’re concerned, the occasional shopper who suddenly stops and reverses their trolley is just doing it because they’ve been distracted, not because they’re being secretly instructed to act this way. In truth, there is little new in the soundtrack’s observations and insights on the way the supermarket environment is designed to manipulated you as a shopper. The most interesting aspect, in many ways, is trying to negotiate a compromise between the actions the directing voice expects you to be able to take and the reality of what is practicable in a city-centre store in peak Fringe season. Also, I cheated by actually buying some items; well, it was my only chance that day.

Rotozaza’s other headphone show Guru Guru is much more stimulating, despite being sedentary: five at a time, we are ranged around a video screen in a basement, playing the roles of a kind of cyber-personality-design focus group, speaking and moving as instructed. Again, one finds oneself negotiating a mode of interaction, though this time with specific individuals who are engaged in the same project.

There has been a small boom in work of this kind... by which I mean not specifically headphone shows but presentations in which, whether through direction or spontaneous interaction, we ourselves become performers. I have already written about Ontroerend Goed’s rather disconcerting exercise in forced intimacy Internal, and I have yet to find time for the one-to-one encounter with performer and artist Adrian Howells that is Foot Washing For The Sole. What strikes me most strongly about such pieces is that, in contrast with the usual sit-and-watch kind of theatre, more is emotionally and psychologically at stake here for the punter, and correspondingly less for the maker of the work, who in some cases (such as Wondermart) is not even physically present. I cannot make up my mind whether this reversal is exhilaratingly revolutionary or improper and even a kind of violation.

Probably the most comprehensive experience of the lot is The Hotel, an immersive piece (bookable through Assembly @ George Street) written by comedian and novelist Mark Watson in which we are simply encouraged to roam around several storeys of a building kitted out as an unsuccessful hotel. We can see cheesy cabaret, get dragooned into sitting on an interview panel, seek advice from the in-house guru (one of those again) in the chill-out room, peruse a collection of the manager’s draft suicide notes and find ourselves being “processed” by a surreal machine. The entire building is comprehensively dressed, with a beautiful eye for detail (my favourite was the certificate of successful exorcism hung modestly on a landing wall), and the hotel is “staffed” by a collection of comics up here with their own shows (the guru, for instance, is Thom Tuck of the excellent Penny Dreadfuls). In effect, it is a wonderful parody of one of Punchdrunk’s immersive presentations, and as far as I am concerned is both more enjoyable and more successful than that company’s last offering It Felt Like A Kiss in the Manchester International Festival last month.

Interaction can take other forms. Rotozaza’s shows are hosted by Forest Fringe, an arts-lab-type set-up with a pay-what-you-can programme of work which, although not listed in the main Fringe programme, has become one of the hottest venues in only a couple of years. Forest’s flagship show this year is Sporadical by Little Bulb Theatre, who won hearts and minds here last year with their small-scale gem Crocosmia. The current show is structured as a large-scale family reunion: although the bulk of the work is the company’s performance of the legend of the family’s origins, they also welcome us all by name (badges are provided) and make small-talk with us beforehand. I’m sad to say that Little Bulb may be a victim of too-much-too-soon syndrome: my impression is that they are labouring too hard to reproduce the unforced charm of their previous piece, and ending up instead with indiscreet whimsy.

More winning because more surprising, for me, is Noir across the square from Forest Fringe at Gilded Balloon Teviot. I’m one of those people who are seldom grabbed by circus acts, however skilful, unless there is some kind of additional hook. Here, the Airealism collective have devised a wordless film noir-style narrative with which to frame their swing, ring, rope and ribbon work in various permutations, including some ensemble sequences where so much is going on that you simply can’t decide where to focus your attention. And stripped down to the basics in terms of form, although jam-packed with the best kind of smart content, is The Event (Assembly @ George Street), a monologue by John Clancy in which Dave Calvitto stands on the stage and speaks about standing on a stage and delivering a monologue. Delicious, perniciously mind-bending stuff.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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