I have a confession to make.
I adore Punchdrunk. I loved The Drowned Man so very, very much that I’m almost ashamed to say how many times I went to watch it (almost!). And I am very grateful that, for many people, it was an eye-opener: and many people who may have steered clear of theatre before are now seeking it out – the weirder the better.
However! I’m so, so tired of people comparing every subsequent production they watch to Punchdrunk and The Drowned Man. I don’t think I can deal with one more review of a production as “Punchdrunkesque”. It’s unfair to a lot of smaller theatre companies without Punchdrunk’s budget to be judged by that yardstick. Stop it with the “Well, it’s not The Drowned Man…” Duh. If it were The Drowned Man, it’d be The Drowned Man. #Logic
Let’s all agree to judge a show on its own merits from now on? That is the only way that our beloved immersive theatre will flourish.
Cool. Now that that little rant is out of the way, I want to tell you about a fantastic performance I went to see (experience? live? immerse myself in?) over the weekend. Shelter Me is the debut production for the circus troupe Circumference, developed in conjunction with – and hosted by – Theatre Delicatessen. This genre-defying piece is a feat of imagination, combining immersive theatre, circus, music, and technology to create a stunning 90-minute-long experience.
The concept of this show is evidence that Circumference have their fingers on the pulse of the London theatre scene. Shelter Me taps into the current trend of immersive theatre where the audience is free to roam, as well as the growing popularity of integrating technology into art and artifice in order to engage the audience (done to great effect recently by A Hollow Body).
Indeed, the technology is an effective feature in Shelter Me. As you pick up your tickets at the door and check in your bag, you’re advised to keep your phone to hand and make sure it’s charged (they provide a charging station), as well as to turn the volume up and to take as many photos as you please – effectively turning the convention of performance as a quiet, hallowed, secret thing on its head. The show also employs a ‘Buddy System’ – audience members are paired up with other audience members and tasked with texting each other throughout the show to share photos and experiences. It’s a nice touch in theory; but in practice it can be a little clumsy: my buddy had another buddy besides myself, so our interaction was very sparse. It didn’t detract from the show, though. I happily roamed around, snapping pictures of the beautiful visuals.
The venue is The Guardian’s old offices in Farringdon – an interesting space, although it suffers from a slight lack of flow. That is all forgiven, though, as the set design is exquisite, rummaging is encouraged, and attention to detail is present throughout. The heart of the production takes place in a slightly surreal, dream-like set of rooms. Light and sound are used beautifully to set the tone, and the audience is encouraged to explore – but often nudged in the direction of an interesting scene.
My favourite aspect was the interaction between the audience the performers, who tell short anecdotes, sustain eye contact, and explore the sense of touch to establish a connection: the gentle squeeze of your hand makes you complicit and pulls you into the narrative. And this is what the piece explores: human connection. From love to loss to the collective making of a cup of tea, it all hinges on connection, and how trust is the underpinning factor in order for a successful connection to occur.
Most spectacular are the acrobatics. Circumference is, of course, a circus troupe and it is no surprise that this is their strong point. The performers fly, walk on air in a parkour-inspired sequence, drop backward into trust falls, and end with a finale that is uplifting and completely affirming – all with an expression of absolute joy on their faces. You can tell they love what they do, and it’s a pleasure to watch them.
[Shelter Me is on until July 12. Get tickets here.]