Old Co-Op Building, Brighton
Opened 5 May, 2010

Arguing what does and does count as “theatre” is an angels-on-pinheads kind of topic; nevertheless, it seems to me that some immersive, site-responsive works take so great pains to deck out the environment that they neglect to people it, or mistakenly believe that we visitors are population enough. The dreamthinkspeak company’s latest such piece is just this side of the line: most of the spaces in this former department store contain no performance as such, although there are both video projections and a number of live scenes, and the central chamber is both “staffed” and delightfully interactive.
This is not a version of The Cherry Orchard, but rather a response to it... and also to the art deco Co-Op building, which is in much the same situation as the orchard. We begin with the elderly servant Firs trying to grab some sleep but being constantly interrupted; as we wander freely through the store we glimpse him again and again, serving tea to Gayev and Ranevskaya and also constantly attempting to find a place to kip. The Chekhovian atmosphere of a past receding and an uncertain future is wonderfully evoked, not least through the use of perspective and recursion: time and again we encounter a tableau first life-size and in the (performers’) flesh, then in miniature on a tabletop or a floor model, or vice versa, so that we always feel we are observing events from a distance in time and space.
The new era ushered in by the cutting down of the orchard is, here, a development of identical box-like apartments (the Co-Op site may also suffer this fate), and the passing of post-feudal deference becomes the polite but over-eager service of the staff in the department store which constitutes the central area, and in which we can genuinely bid for the furniture and clothing on display, with the winners taking their goods at the end of the run. (At the early performance I attended, an entire suite of kitchen units had reached only £30.) And there in the bedding department is Firs, still seeking rest and being moved on. Another chamber is entirely empty save for the smell of emptiness, musty and a little damp. It is a gorgeously rich experience, and like Chekhov blends amusement masterfully with melancholy.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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