Theatre enthusiast Harriet Thompson won our London International Festival of Theatre reporter brief. Here, she admires the splendor of storytelling and reflects upon the demands of being an audience member...
Last month I was abducted by armed Syrian soldiers.
Some fellow tourists and I were about to embark on a guided tour of Damascus – or so we thought – when we were intercepted at gunpoint, forced to stand with our hands against a wall and bundled blindly into the back of a van with hoods over our heads.
If you’re thinking this sounds rather traumatic, you’re not wrong; but don’t panic, I survived to tell the tale. The “hostages” were in fact the audience of 66 Minutes in Damascus, a live performance that simulated an arrest carried out by the Syrian secret service, transporting us into the heart of the revolution. Love or hate immersive theatre, it wasn’t an experience anyone of us was likely to forget in a hurry.
The London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) commissioned this production and it’s a mere drop in the metaphorical ocean of performances that LIFT has programmed this summer. The festival’s aim is to bring remarkable global stories to London and I was lucky enough to experience a few of them. From an eight-hour verbatim marathon of The Great Gatsby in the West End to a confusing set of interrupted and irrelevant anecdotes delivered by theatre veterans Forced Entertainment, it’s been a rather exciting month. Actually, that’s an understatement. I’ve blooming loved it.
Stories are wonderful, aren’t they? They make life that little bit juicier and that little bit less boring. Most mind-blowing plays are no more than captivating stories with the adrenaline of live performance thrown in. For me, the thrill of theatre lies in the risk. Every performance is unique and that’s what makes it so appealing. My experience as an audience member at LIFT was generally a feeling of giddy excitement. Initially, I thought the Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz would be an endurance test, but I was left unashamedly wanting more, exhausted but reluctant to leave my seat other than to participate in the most deserved standing ovation I have ever given. The audience was tangibly overwhelmed by the achievement of the production and the atmosphere was electric.
The outdoor dance spectacle Motor Show was an entirely different experience, as each individual audience member was isolated, cushioned by a pair of headphones that acted as a kind of capsule against the outside world. The Greenwich Peninsular was transformed into a performance playground where auditory and visual components collided to create chilling and comic moments. The costumes were colourful, reminding me of an arena pop concert, while the headphones made the sound effects uncomfortably personal, as though someone was whispering in my ear.
The festival has selected stories from all over the world, from a myriad of disciplines, with performers of all ages – The Dark Side of Love boasted an incredibly talented young cast – small scale, large scale, outdoor, indoor, West End, wasteland – need I go on? I was left with the question posed by Forced Entertainment resounding in my head: “What makes a good story?” If theatre can ask the question, surely it can answer it.
The London International Festival of Theatre will run until Sunday 15 July. To find out more, visit the website.