KlangHaus: 800 Breaths, Southbank Centre

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by guest critic Archie Whyld

A dozen or so of us were led to the roof of the Royal Festival Hall where we were told to expect: ‘A multi-sensory encounter of shifting sound, colour and light, which reinvents the gig-going experience as a site-responsive close-up standing performance.’ Whatever that is.

The roof space of the building has a boiler room, pipes and generators claustrophobic submarine feel and we were gently led through it by the actor, performer, musicians The Neutrinos and visual artist Sal Pitman. The guitarist checked his pulse, and then he checked mine, and then he gave me a nod of reassurance.

What was going on? The live music alternated between industrial electronic noise jazz and hypnotic acoustic, haunting lullabies. The projections and colour-scape, provided at points by an old fashioned slide projector, combined with the music and submarine architecture, to create a dreamlike and otherworldly experience. There was no narrative to speak of, other than the mention of breaths – 800 of them. Is this the number of breaths we take in an hour, the length of the performance?

Proceedings culminated with a projection of a cloudscape on the ceiling and the audience being led outside on to the roof of the building to be exposed to the air and the beautiful summer London skies. This is a beautiful moment. Is it theatre, though?

Depends on your definition. Post-dramatic theatre probably, in that there were no discernible characters, nor was there an apparent plot. It favoured feeling and mood rather than action, and in this respect it was hugely successful.

KlangHause: 800 Breaths runs through 23 July.

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Hotel Europe, The Green Rooms

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As populism rises and fascists are tightening national borders with physical walls and stricter immigration regulations, the revolution is gaining speed. Protests and rallies are the most prominent forms of activism, but there is a growing movement in DIY and small actions.

Theatre isn’t standing by, either. In five of the bedrooms at the recently opened hotel for artists The Green Rooms, Isley Lynn and Philipp Ehmann have installed binaural radio drama performances telling stories of migration. With each story by a different writer, solo listeners are treated to intimate, personal accounts of characters impacted by migration. Quietly subversive, each story snapshots a changing world and the vulnerable people affected by the right wing’s knee-jerk, xenophobic reaction.

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Gardens Speak, Battersea Arts Centre

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In Syria, Asad’s regime attacks the funeral services for rebel fighters. Rather than holding public burials, families bury dead martyrs in their gardens, usually with no tombstone. In tribute to these people, live artist Tania El Khoury has created an interactive sound installation with the stories of ten martyrs buried in gardens. An intimate audience of ten each hear the recorded monologue of an individual martyr who died fighting against Asad’s forces, but they have to experience some discomfort in the process. Gardens Speak lasts a mere 30 minutes but irrevocably alters the detached western view of Middle Eastern conflict, fostering empathy and despair for fellow man.

In a small room, we are asked to remove our shoes and socks, put our belongings to one side and don an over-sized raincoat. Once everyone is ready, the door is opened to a darkened room with ten tombstones lining the edge of a large wooden frame filled with soil. Each person is handed a postcard and a small torch. Following the instructions on the card, we each find the tombstone pictured. To hear the story of the person buried in that grave, we dig into the rich, peaty earth that scents the room. What with the competing sounds of other recordings, to hear properly we kneel or lie in the dirt.

The narration is a simple, unembellished tale of one man’s fight and fall at the hand of the tyrannical government. It’s neither overly graphic but neither does it hold back. The environment created by the set strongly influences the mood – there is a pronounced gravitas in the space. The whole effect doesn’t overwhelm, but imbeds itself internally, somewhere in the depths of the gut, along with the spirit of the young man who’s life spoke from the dirt I lie in.

We are lucky: the room is warm, and our clothes are protected from the soil. After the narrative of a man’s life, death and burial in his mother’s garden and a sound bath in Arabic singing, we can wash our feet (a reassuring ritual element that also adds to the aesthetic of the piece), collect our things and go home to our comfortable, little lives. Gardens Speak is both a little installation and one that encompasses the whole of humanity.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Invisible Treasure, Ovalhouse Theatre

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Invisible Treasure has no script and no actors. It’s not a play, but a playspace. For this hour long part-video game, part-puzzle, the audience/participants must work together to interpret the cryptic tasks that pop up on a small screen in the sterile room where they are deposited by theatre staff. The sensors, cameras and microphones that monitor the group at all times determine whether or not you progress to the next level or not, and the chance of failure is very real indeed. A giant white rabbit sinisterly lurks in the corner, its unblinking eyes the Big Brother that is unseen but all seeing. As the levels get harder, group dynamics become more pronounced. Emotions build and there’s potential for rebellion, made more exciting by each group’s unique composition. fanSHEN’s installation/event/environment’s use of interactive technology gives audiences a high degree of agency, but is still a powerful reminder that we are never truly free.

Hellicar & Lewis’ technical design is hugely impressive, or at least it is to a tech Luddite like myself. Others may find it less so but the unification and application are still incredibly inventive. The levels’ tasks require both problem solving and play that the group, on the whole, enjoyed even though some went on a bit too long. Those that aren’t keen on audience interaction or are introverted may find it challenging to engage, but as everyone is in the same position, it also might not feel so threatening. With clear leaders and followers quickly emerging, it’s possible to not contribute ideas but not joining in doesn’t feel like an option. It’s fascinating to watch others, and easy to let go and remember the childlike joy of playing without knowing where the game will lead.

When describing the experience with a friend afterwards, he boldly stated that it doesn’t sound like theatre. To be honest, I still haven’t decided if it is. But it is incredibly theatrical. With practitioners constantly trying to push the limits of immersive and interactive theatre, Invisible Treasure is certainly at the forefront and will create a personal experience and reaction for each person that attends. It’s tempting to go again and see what differs.

On completion of the levels, bonus rounds and free play sections the group is released into an analogue liminal space to process their thoughts and feedback on their experience. This relaxed environment provides an opportunity to decompress and discuss, but could, for some, lessen the impact of the experience by discovering how it works. Though this project is still in the early stages of its development, its certainly furthering the merging of theatre and gaming to empower audiences, and a wonderfully fun experience.


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