Written for the London Theatre Blog, 25 August 2008
C Venues have handed Belt Up the keys to one of their performance spaces and let them run riot. The company named it the Red Room and wrapped it in a patchwork of carpets, silk drapes, armchairs, cushions, beds, mirrors and empty picture frames, creating a kind of faded, derelict glamour. The Red Room hosts a full programme of immersive theatrical entertainment, including new work, adaptations, promenade performances, freak shows and secret parties. I maintain that Women of Troy promised more than it delivered, but taken in context it’s just the least immersive end of Belt Up’s spectrum – and I don’t see any other companies attacking the fourth wall with anything approaching their zeal.
At the other end of that spectrum is The Park Keeper. A new piece by Nikolaus Morris, it casts the audience as a macabre bunch of 21st century hedonists, arriving at the Red Room to experience their deepest desires. The production does its best to blur the line between performers and audience. Within ten minutes I’ve waltzed with three cast members and been hand-fed sweets by a third. As I watch the skull-faced master of revels, Gabbitas, hands slither across my shoulders and tie a piece of red silk at my throat; jesters’ hats and other bits of costume appear on other audience members until only the performers’ greasepainted faces separate us. We become revellers, complicit in the actions of our companions.
The narrative gets a little lost in places; the balance swings more in favour of audience participation than of clear storytelling. But what makes The Park Keeper unique is the way it implicates its audience in unsavoury acts, challenging our usual comfortable spectatorial position as we’re invited to kick or shove the keeper, or to hold down his assistant while the revellers piss in his face. It’s often unclear why we’re tormenting the man so, but no one refuses. After all, it’s only make-believe – right?
That’s the power of the Red Room – the audience lounges on the furniture or the floor, inhabiting the space as much as the performers, and this fosters a certain camaraderie with the company. This is especially true of the Red Room adaptation of The Tartuffe, in which Orgon and his company of French players relate his family’s downfall at the hands of the supposedly holy conman. The relaxed surroundings and Orgon’s pompous but likeable demeanour soon get us on side. Unlike The Park Keeper, The Tartuffe is a comedy, using the blurred line between audience and players to inspire not discomfort but laughter. Audience members are pulled up to play parts – Orgon’s company is too small to cast Mariane’s fiancé Valère or Orgon’s first wife – but immersion into this production comes less from physical interaction than from the intimate atmosphere the Red Room creates. The play meets us halfway; as we descend into Orgon’s world, the performers break out into ours with a script full of references to American Beauty, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and the Fringe itself (plus the most epic and committed mime-fight I’ve ever seen).
As if the Red Room programme wasn’t varied enough, Belt Up have given White Rose Theatre – the company responsible for last year’s Tony! The Blair Musical – an hour-long slot every evening, which they’ve filled with a rotating cycle of six short plays known collectively as Lost Soul Music. These range from monologues to cabaret-style performances, all themed around lost souls.
My particular Lost Soul Music show is a monologue delivered by a gentleman in waistcoat and bowler hat, interspersed with short piano recitals. The atmosphere in the Red Room is that of a plush gentlemen’s club – not the contemporary kind, but its Victorian incarnation, full of important men drinking port and smoking fine cigars by the fireside. The monologue itself is a neat little piece with a fantastic element and a twist in its tail, reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s short fiction; it muses quietly on the things a hopeless romantic like narrator Thomas would do for his one true love. Provided each of the six pieces are as strong, Belt Up have chosen their Red Room companions well.
Certain members of my company later found themselves at one of Belt Up’s secret events, in which they debuted a brand new immersive show in the final stages of writing. The event took them from the Red Room to the roof of the main C Venues building and then back for a burlesque party, and even in the light of the next day they found themselves expecting to see mysterious Brides, Beasts and Red Generals stalking C’s corridors.
Not one of the Red Room shows is perfect. But whatever their individual failings, Belt Up are still doing more to keep theatre exciting and vital than any other company at this year’s Fringe.