Total Theatre saves the day! Immersive is making bank and fulfilling old ambition

 In Article/Essay, Reviews

Total Theatre saves the day! Immersive is making bank and fulfilling old ambition

By Tamsin Flower


What do divisive composer Richard Wagner, The Tower of London and dancers dressed appropriately for a bohemian sex party have in common? Total Theatre.

Before Wagner’s operatic visions of heroism were embraced by Nazi ideology, his creative mission took Europe’s two-thousand seat auditoriums by storm. He dreamt of total synthesis of the static and performed arts resulting from a ‘fellowship of all artists’ working together to create environments of supernatural scale, synergy and impact.

Fast-forward to London in mid-2023 and event listings feature a generous helping of ‘immersive’ storytelling, to a far greater degree than 2019. Indeed, ‘immersive’ has its own tab on the pages of magazines and ticketing companies.

Performance and tech company, Layered Reality, is currently running two immersive shows simultaneously – The Gun Powder Plot, based at The Tower of London, and War of the Worlds in the City. Both currently rank in the top 10% of global immersive experiences on TripAdvisor. I managed to reserve a ticket for the former and experienced a singular combination of promenade theatre, virtually zip-lining the Thames and deciphering whether to back rebels or Royalists with a family of American tourists.

Layered reality CEO, Andrew Mcguinness said: “While the way we are entertained at home has been transformed by the digital revolution, entertainment away from home hasn’t innovated at the same pace. Our experiences have been designed to meet this need, giving audiences unique memories.”

While the Plot’s tongue in cheek acting and lighting effects protect audience-interlopers from emotionally engaging, Punchdrunk’s vision of Homer’s Iliad, The Burnt City, succeeds in moments of true pathos. Equally dark and ominous, with a nod to escape-rooms, this piece similarly leaned on Hollywood techniques to create familiarity for participants out of their element.

With an epic score that would grace James Horner’s studio, and derelict rooms dressed like film-Noir sets, this urban factory illiad is not for the feint-hearted. Observers are physically challenged by proximity to each other, chest-beating, platform climbing, naked-showering artists, deprivation of sunlight and strobing – causing some to stumble into Woolwich moderately disturbed. Such an ‘embodied’ experience could be likened to the values of Artaud’s theatre of cruelty – an early twentieth-century method that appealed to actors’ and audience’s primal senses to create and leave an impression.

In making these experiences sensational enough to appeal to theatre-goers, sometime theatre-goers and tourists alike, the episodes of pure dance in The Burnt City and dialogue in The Gunpowder Plot are strategically unchallenging, creating a note of anti-climax for fans of the disciplines. However, genuinely haunting sequences linger after each show, such as Iphigenia’s hopeful climb to her death by sacrifice, and King James’ address to each VR viewer as he tortures a Catholic priest on the Tower.’

These shows aren’t simply escapist gore to sweeten the chagrin of life in an economic slump. In fact, those on a tight budget will think thrice about grabbing a ticket for Layered Reality’s War of the Worlds, or Punchdrunk’s Burnt City as prices start at an investment of £40, with some concessions for locals.

To use the apocalyptic visual metaphors of The Burnt City, The Gun Powder Plot, or Wagner’s prophetic character, Erda – theatre goers are queueing in the wreckage and burn-out of a continued funding crisis.

Venues that survived the pandemic are still playing multiple ‘recovery seasons’ in order absorb some of the damage, and fringe venues brave enough to take financial risks are much fewer in number. But like in any feel-good drama, the community survive, at the end, by sticking together. Andrew continues:

“Immersive entertainment businesses create a very wide variety of opportunities – for those from a theatrical background we employ directors, costume designers, performance coaches, and of course first-class actors. From the world of gaming, we employ directors and coders, from Hospitality – chefs and FOH Managers.”

Indeed, the growth of immersive recreation in the UK, from the boom in VR playgrounds and competitive gaming to interactive exhibitions like Dopamine Land and Frameless, is indicative of how the arts, business and technology will combine resources and audiences to form ‘fellowships of all artists.’ To what extent this will be guided by commercial survival or creative sensibilities is yet to be seen.






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