Brighton Festival 2011
An immersive drama for a solo audience member in which headphones, prerecorded video and a telescope set high above the promenade are used to involve the participant in a close-up drama staged against and amid the crowded streets of Brighton seafront
All theatre is arguably about isolating the story in the crowd. And over the past three or four years a number of theatre pieces have been developed that manage this in a literal sense using technology. Manchester Literature Festival is currently staging a piece called ‘Station Stories’, for instance, in which the audience are simultaneously able to experience the busy ambience of Manchester Piccadilly and the individual stories being played out from platform to platform. More high profile have been David Rosenberg’s two pieces Contains Violence and Electric Hotel (the latter staged on The Level as part of last year’s Brighton Festival programme), which both cast their audiences as headphone-equipped voyeurs, ear-wigging on the Hitchcockian action they watched unfolding behind glass windows.
There has also been an accompanying trend for intimate theatre in which headphones are used to guide the solo audience member through a set of instructions, and optical technology to impose a second reality upon an existing location. In Lundahl and Seitl’s Rotating in a Room of Images you are guided through the pitch-blackness by the disembodied voice, or occasionally hand, of a child. In Pixel Rosa’s And the Birds Fell from the Sky, currently showing as part of the Brighton Fringe, a video watched through goggles and accompanied by smells and sensations gives the impression you’re joyriding through a dystopian future with a bunch of renegade clowns.
So UK/Spanish company Me and the Machine are entering an already busy dialogue with I Came By Myself to a Crowded Place. And their slight, ten-minute piece, which feels more like a toe dipped in the water of developing theatrical technologies, can’t help but suffer by comparison.
Enacting the title of the piece, the solo audience member is taken to a corridor high up in the Thistle Hotel and given a set of headphones. Asked to look through the spy hole, you see the backs of a man and a woman dancing. Yet when instructed by the seductively Spanish-accented female voice, you open the door and step into a room that is empty but for a telescope overlooking the real seafront view of Brighton’s busy promenade. ‘You must be a moment too late or a moment too soon,’ says the plaintive voice, ‘because I am already gone’.
Who is the strange woman whose voice you hear in your headphones, and whose spotty tea dress and clumpy brown boots you see in close-up through the telescope? And are you and she ever destined to meet? Staged via the technology in that in-between world between the real and the projected, the close-up story and the sweep of the crowd, this is an atmospheric piece about missing the main event, side-stepping the story. And as such its very slightness is part of its point. But it’s emotional pull is slight, too, and where I should have been gripped by the need to chase down the ending to the partially glimpsed narrative, I found myself far more drawn to the real dramas unfolding in the street below.
There is a reason why Battersea Arts Centre grouped the pieces in their annual One-On-One Festival into themed ‘menus’ this year. Programmed on its own, I Came By Myself to a Crowded Place is a theatrical amuse-bouche whose charming elusiveness doesn’t quite make up for the lack of something more substantial.