If there’s one trend in London theatre right now, I’d go out on a limb and say it’s site-specific and promenade productions. From Punchdrunk to the Bush to the National Theatre and the Old Vic and across the country, theatres are exploring how to break more than just the fourth wall. Taking the audience out of a traditional theatre venue opens huge opportunities to create fully immersive experiences, to challenge viewers to become real participants, and to take a theatrical event beyond simply theatrical and make it truly memorable. It’s a tremendous task for both artists and audience, and it doesn’t always work.
Fortunately for those of us who went for the dusk-to-dawn experience that is Hotel Medea, it works pretty darn well.
Starting at 11pm from a pier near the O2 Arena, with very little detail of what’s to come, participants begin the evening’s journey on a boat and are ferried to a “secret” location. In reality it’s pretty much just across the river, but the unique situation seemed to break people out of audience mode and into conversation, so in served a dual purpose of both separating us from the “outside” world and bringing us together a bit into what would be a shared experience. Once on site, we were sent in small groups towards the main building, making several brief stops for bits of coaching on some of the interactive bits we might expect – a few dance steps, a call-and-response song, and the like, and presented ways which further helped to both relax us into and make us wonder about what was to come.
In stark contrast to the sprawling and immaculately detailed worlds Punchdrunk creates, the building was basically empty of scenic dressings, with only a few small platforms and a bunch of plastic chairs scattered around what looked to be a former boathouse. Once the action really got underway, evocations of place in part 1 were minimal, mostly relying on costume, some lighting, and audience arrangement to shift scenes.
As suggested by the title, the backbone of the evening is the Greek myth of Medea. (I realized at some point in the wee hours that the word “hotel” in the name seems to simply stem from the fact that we’re staying overnight.) The first part, entitled “Zero Hour Market,” takes us through the story of how Medea allowed Jason (of “and the Argonauts”) to capture the Golden Fleece on the condition he marry her and take her from Colchis back to mainland Greece with him. The vital pieces of the narrative are in place, but from the start we are thrown into a frenetic world layered with sound (provided live by DJ Dolores), multiple languages, violence, modern technology and Brazilian tribalistic ritual. The opening moments so successfully and simply evoked the rich melee of a middle-eastern market bazaar that it was almost worth the price of admission alone. From there we are party to a military invasion, a football game, ceremonial rites, celebration, murder and betrayal. The audience is at once viewer and participant, being manoeuvred by the players as needed to stay out of the action (clearing a path for the invasion of the Argonauts), confine and control it (“don’t let them leave the circle”), or actively become a part of it (hiding Medea from her captors, Spartacus style; preparation of the bride and groom). Even though a fair bit of the spoken lines are in Portuguese, it doesn’t hinder at all, and in fact prevents the production from getting bogged down in words. No long passages from the chorus while something happens offstage here. And, while there’s occasionally a bit too much going on, the key elements are all in place, and the whole cast is fully committed, the result being a fantastic and engaging telling of the tale.
After a break for coffee/tea and cookies (gratis), Parts 2 and 3 then go on through the night to follow Euripides’ dramatic version of the story, where Jason falls in love with a younger woman and Medea exacts her revenge for the betrayal. Part 2, “Drylands,” is in three sections, presented almost as a song would be sung in a round: as audience we are also split into three groups, and each group experiences all three sections but starts at a different one. Here, Jason is cast as a modern-day politician on the campaign trail, and his aspirations to power are superceding his obligations to home and family. One section explores Jason the politician, the second the changing nature of the love relationship between he and Medea, and one places us into the powerless, outside role of their children. Happily, given that it was by this time 2 in the morning, the children’s segment actually involves bunk beds in which we are made to rest. We share the room with the Jason/Medea scene, but are actively compelled to close our eyes and let it take place without watching. We can hear, but not all of it, and by design we cannot view what we will later see – or in some cases already have seen. In conversation at the next break (including with the Tyro Theatre Critic who happened to be there as well), most seemed to think the order they got made perfect sense, but I’m not convinced that Jason’s actions in scene with Medea entirely make sense without the context of his political campaign. My group saw the third iteration of the scene where we discover Jason’s infidelity, and I’m pretty sure we got a much deeper presentation of Medea’s pain as an end to the act.
It’s worth noting here that neither the flyer we got at the show nor anything online appears to match the names of the performers with the roles they play, so the best I can say is that the actress playing Medea came across as 110% emotionally invested in the part, and every moment of anger and arrogance and pain and cold, calculating, vengeful wretch was absolutely right. Other cast members were very good as well, but as many of them played several roles as well as being audience shepherds, and didn’t need to plumb the same emotional depths.
After more coffee and cookies, part 3, “Feast of Dawn,” takes us on a journey through the broken heart of a woman and into a mind twisting on revenge. On the way, we are confidantes and collaborators; we again assume the role of children; we mourn. We are not shocked or angry; is it because we know the story, or because by this point we emotionally understand Medea’s actions? If we understand, then the entire evening has been a success. And maybe, just maybe, it’s been enough of a success that we also feel some pity for Jason, who we abandon as a weeping wreck – a man who has lost everything he didn’t realize was at risk until it was too late.
Apparently, while the company (Brazilian collective Zecora Ura and the London-based Para-Active/Urban Dolls project) has done the entire show a variety of times, part 1 can stand alone, and it’s kind of clear that it’s been worked through a bit more. While parts 2 and 3 expand to use other rooms in the building and other parts of the site, the flavor of the interaction shifts somehow, and later in the evening I more often felt like I was watching a scene rather than being involved in a moment. I was never disengaged, and was in fact being handed props right up until the end, but the interaction did at times feel less integrated, more window dressing than foundational stone. But not often, and it’s a minor quibble on what was otherwise a truly unique and marvelous night.
(This review was for the performance on July 16, 2010. Shows run weekends through August 7. Part 1 is available as a separate ticket for the soft those who might want to get the night bus home at around 1:30am – a shuttle bus returns leavers to the nearest transport hub. Breakfast is included for all-nighters, as is the same shuttle starting around 5am.)