Immersive theatre is billed as a thrilling and intimate alternative to traditional drama, but it smacks of triviality and low-level fascism
You Me Bum Bum Train takes audience participation to the limit
Not long ago, the audience in a theatre was there to watch a play. Nowadays, the audience is the play, or at least the protagonist in a production that is animated by the paying customer.
Recently I visited an abandoned electricity board building in Bethnal Green, east London, signing away my possessions and jacket on the door. My loafers were gaffer-taped to my socks; I was placed in a wheelchair; pushed through swing doors; and berated about the bad form of an American football team. Two seconds later, I was in a locker room, delivering a pep talk while 15 hunks glowered at me through facepaint and helmet guards.
And that was just the start. Over the next 40 minutes, I entered a tunnel lying on my back for an MRI scan, emerging through a sushi restaurant and a lost luggage department and then (still on my back) into the undercarriage of a car, and next a garage where I had to explain why the car wasn’t ready.
Hustled unceremoniously onwards, I gave a briefing on the BP oil spill, took questions on my shares in the company, delivered a sermon at a gospel meeting (I was in the wheelchair again and stupidly omitted to rise out of it on a tide of hallelujahs), and signed copies of a book I had published on “Happiness,” assuming the demeanour of a professional grouch.
By this time the grouchiness came easily. I had been passed through a moshing, baying crowd, been shoved in a cupboard while “robbing” a sleeping woman (who woke up) and sent down a chute to a rubbish tip. My humiliation was completed at a karaoke bar where a gameshow host made me sing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to a small, uninterested audience.
Of course, everything I hated about the show You Me Bum Bum Train—the bullying, the coerciveness, the physical rough-house, the illusion of “empowerment”—is everything many people and some critics loved. The title is also the name of the company, which has been doing similar shows for some years; this latest one was co-presented by the Barbican Centre in July.
In a way, YMBBT is the ultimate experience in “immersive” theatre, a term which also embraces the work of Punchdrunk. The company’s version of The Masque of the Red Death left audiences to roam the gothic corridors of the BAC venue in Battersea; most recently, it applied these modes of “participation” in an operatic version of the Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, co-presented by the ENO in a secret warehouse destination. And this summer the BAC hosted a “One-on-One” festival offering a number of experiences for a solo audience, including singing karaoke with a serving soldier, or being bathed naked, then hugged and fed by performance artist Adrian Howells.
Many of these events could be interpreted as bids to restore an intimacy threatened by this age of cultural fragmentation. At last year’s Edinburgh Festival, the Flemish company Ontroerend Goed consigned an audience of just five people to individual actors; my beautiful “partner” tried to crack my reserve with liqueurs by candlelight and then schmoozed me on the dance floor. She took my number. Who was she, or I, kidding?
The practitioners in this field routinely decry more familiar audience-participation routines such as the hissing of villains and singing of songs in pantomimes as old hat. But, really, how passive are you at a performance of a Beethoven symphony or King Lear? The director Peter Brook points out that you don’t have to “join in” to participate fully in a performance. A successful interaction with the stage demands a reactive audience; that’s how any good theatre happens, even in the west end.
Even so, the idea of the audience as protagonist is not new. In the 1960s, the Living Theatre of America put on shows in which actors and audience copulated on stage together. That same decade, composer John Cage and artist Allan Kaprow created “Happenings,” performances which relied on audience participation, and experimental Polish director Jerzy Grotowski turned the interaction of his players with the audience into a kind of holy theatre communion.
But in the recent British shows, the actors are not usually as accomplished as the Living Theatre’s or Grotowski’s and the projects smack of triviality as well as a low-level fascism in their treatment of the “up for it” audience. Nor is there any underpinning philosophy: it’s just party time, and you’d better join in.
I dread to think what would happen at YMBBT if a customer tried to, say, resign as the football coach or smack the gameshow host in the mouth. But that will never happen. The audience is complicit from the start, so the dynamic of the show, which is more like a ghost-train ride than a theatrical experience, is as pre-ordained as in any conventional entertainment.