It’s not undue praise to say that Punchdrunk are one of the most exciting theatre companies around today, and the various productions they have put on prior to this have often been ground-breaking or at least unusual. One such production saw them tackle Macbeth in a largely silent production where the audience could move between scenes in a nonlinear fashion, in which they could participate. If you are thinking this sounds as if they would be the perfect match for a show that plays around with time as much as Doctor Who does, then you can easily see why they teamed up with writer Tom MacRae last year to create The Crash Of The Elysium for the Manchester International Festival. As the Olympics approached, the London 2012 Festival put on a variety of theatre events, and one of these was a second run of the show in Ipswich. With this announcement, I hastily booked my ticket for what was being touted as one of the most exciting theatre pieces of the year.
The original intention for the production had been that only children up to the age of 12 would be able to attend. With huge demand this was eventually revised to add extra “after dark” performances for those over the age of 13. One thing that is immediately apparent however is that no matter what the age of the audience is, the reception to the piece is fairly universal. It’s worth stating from the off that this is of course by no means the first time immersive theatre has been done. Quite often, especially with horror based productions, this largely involves punters simply walking through each section as actors jump out at the audience to scare them. The Saw maze at Thorpe Park is a perfect example of this, and was more or less what I expected when going into this production. However, what I was instead presented with was a far more interactive experience that managed to deliver both on plot and scares.
Upon arrival, signs that what you are entering into is anything to do with Doctor Who are non-existent. Great care has been put into making this appear as nothing more than a historical exhibit. This deception is maintained as the audience is led in groups of around 20 from the waiting room into a room with a collection of artefacts and photographs and a museum curator talks us through the history of the ill-fated ocean liner, the Elysium. This soon gives way to the sound of explosions and the army bursting in to escort the group away on a matter of ‘national security’.
The audience is then instructed to don decontamination suits, and following a short briefing are led through smoke filled tunnels where you would struggle to see a few inches in front of you. The combined effect is one of total disorientation, and as such when the group is led to a scientific station set up beside the hull of the crashed spaceship Elysium the audience is fully into the swing of the production. Punchdrunk have been rather canny here in realising that even with a young audience, there are laughs and giggles at the beginning as they go in with a sense of fearlessness due to knowing that it’s ultimately all make believe. However, the smoke, pace and movement between distinctly different areas mean that by the time the audience have viewed a black box message from the Doctor and followed Captain Soloman and Corporal Albright through the hull of the ship, reality and the fiction they know to be taking place before them become much harder to separate.
This ability to draw you in is perhaps the greatest strength of the whole piece. The after dark performance that I attended had only a handful of children around the age of 13 who were suitably terrified at the required moments, but the big surprise was that it had much the same impact upon the largely adult audience. When some fresh terror inexpertly emerged the cries of surprise were palpable and there were multiple occasions where I found myself being knocked back as people recoiled in surprise. One of the first rooms we entered on the ship had a collection of defence robots that were to all appearances unresponsive and under further examination, stuffed and unlikely to be responding any time soon. Therefore when one of them suddenly rose from the floor and started advancing on the audience it came as something of a surprise even though logic dictated that it would likely occur. When everyone piled out of the room after the army escorts barked order to withdraw reality was quickly forgotten and the rushed exodus was clearly a very genuine response from many.
While on the subject of scaring the audience we can’t go any further without referring to the monsters of the piece. At the Doctor Who Live show a couple of years ago the Weeping Angels were a real highlight of the proceedings. This is due in no small part to the fact that their execution on stage lends itself hugely to some of the oldest theatre trickery in the book. As such, their inclusion in this show is a totally logical choice, and while in arena shows they came across very well there is no denying that in this close up context they work even better. One particularly notable moment is straight out of “Flesh & Stone”, as while trapped by a locked door at the end of a corridor a Weeping Angel advances first on Corporal Albright and then on our group as the lights begin to fail. Once again as with the defence system earlier the members of our group show a genuine terror and there was a notable push up against the door as the audience tried to get out of the way of the Angel that refused to stop pursuing us.
It would be easy to state, as some reviews have, that the production relies on these types of moments rather than a tight plot; but to do so is to do a huge disservice to both Tom MacRae and Punchdrunk. These moments loom large in the memory because they provide visceral scares that stick in the memory, but this is precisely the type of thing that a production like this should be aiming for. After all, what would a Doctor Who production, especially one with Weeping Angels, be if it weren’t attempting to entertain and terrify its young audience in equal measure? Such criticism also fails to take account of the fact that this production is aimed primarily at the under 13s and the after dark performances for an older audience were added as an afterthought. This is something that you can largely forget when working your way around, only being reminded of the target demographic occasionally when references are made to ‘a child of Earth’ and the like. But when dealing with such a pacey story that actually involves the audience progressing the plot of a linear base under siege story is a totally sensible way to go.
Make no mistake though: MacRae’s vision is broader than the most standard stories in this trope. He makes full use of having a monster that is intrinsically linked to time travel, and after being cornered by the angels we saw the walls rise away to the ceiling and we found ourselves in a 19th century fairground. This allowed a sudden change of pace as we were presented with something quite tonally different as we met Dolly, a girl that we had heard earlier had travelled with the Doctor, and she related the wonder of travelling through time before we set off on our way to send the TARDIS to the Doctor – following a hall of mirrors, with an Angel at every turn. Indeed, the whole 19th century section really exemplified the quality of the production values. I’ve mentioned previously how believable the spaceship corridors and lab were, but it really is a testament to the production that it can go from this to a full big top fayre complete with wet straw floor, various attractions and period details all of which the audience immediately accepts.
Just when it seems it’s all over, though, there’s one last hurrah as the Angels close on the flight deck of the Elysium. After an ending that’s straight out of the Moffat big-book-of-plot-resolutions (involving “restarting the ship using combined artron energy”), everyone exits past the Angels that have been sucked into the stone walls to get out of the decontamination suits and to get their own letter from the Doctor. This is a particularly nice touch that allows the children to have something to take away from an experience that will surely be etched into their memories.
It seems a great shame that this Ipswich run marked the end of the production, as there are surely many who would love to attend were the show to travel – although this of course is far from practical due to the site-specific nature of the show. It’s clear though that the format of Doctor Who has lent itself hugely to the type of theatre that Punchdrunk are engaged in, and getting in a proper writer from the series has managed to maintain a tone with the show that makes this feel like entering straight into an episode. While there have been a variety of Doctor Who plays and shows in the past, this particular production has been something of a first, and in its wake future endeavours will have a great deal to live up to.