IMMERSIVE TIME TRAVEL THROUGH SPACES
STAB at BATS|
Written By Rachel Callinan
Created and Directed by Kerryn Palmer
Producer: Jennifer O’Sullivan
Presented by The 24/7 Project and BATS Theatre
at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 2 Nov 2013 to 16 Nov 2013
Reviewed by James McKinnon, 3 Nov 2013
Pandemic is one of the two BATS STAB commissions for 2013, and it certainly fulfils the STAB mandate of producing innovative, New Zealand performance work. The ‘New Zealand' part is supplied by the content: Pandemic dramatizes Wellington's experience of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed up to 100 million people worldwide. The innovative part is the play's form, which blends realism, participatory scenes, and environmental theatre.
The 24/7 Project aims to create immersive theatre experiences, and Pandemic does this by recruiting the audience into the action. Much of the play's frisson comes from its unpredictability, so it would be inappropriate to give too much away, but rest assured that Pandemic engages all five senses over the course of the performance, which occupies roughly two hours from the time you arrive at the theatre to the time the bus returns you there.
Oh, that's right – most of the performance takes place at a mystery venue. Be prepared for a short bus ride and a brief walk – and also be advised that you will continue to walk or stand through much of the play, so not the best night to rock the 5-inch heels.
Pandemic takes place in the middle of the flu outbreak of October-December 1918, a two-month span during which the disease killed 8600 New Zealanders (roughly half as many fatalities as NZ suffered from the entire First World War).
Created and directed by Kerryn Palmer, written by Rachel Callinan, and featuring Andrew Patterson, Ben Fransham, Jennifer Martin, Michael Ness, Noa Campbell, Phil Grieve, and Sarah Boddy, the play dramatizes these historic events from a personal perspective, focusing on a single family in Wellington.
This identification with a family of regular people keeps the play emotionally engaging. We see and become immersed in scenes from an increasingly disrupted everyday life, such as a party to welcome home the community's veterans. Scenes like this deftly convey the cruel social implications around the timing of the outbreak, which struck at precisely the moment when it seemed like the five-year war crisis was over. Naturally, we don't want to listen when a doctor warns us that such gatherings are hazardous – it just doesn't seem fair.
Pandemic illustrates how New Zealand was utterly unprepared for the crisis, at both the personal and political levels (an inquiry after the fact led to the 1920 Health Act). The growing fear and confusion is aggravated by a constant flow of contradictory misinformation. When official advice and regulations change daily, charlatans start to seem more credible. When supplies run low, people confront difficult choices, revealing the racial and social divisions that no one wants to see.
The play also asks us to think about how prepared we are today: would we know what to do if an outbreak struck tomorrow? Would we trust our medical and political officials to look out for us? (The co-operativeness of the audience suggests that, to an almost frightening extent, we would.)
The single most ingenious element of Pandemic is its dramatic space. Instead of using a single stage to represent numerous imaginary locations, the performance venues are partitioned into multiple real locations, which the audience travels through (and not always together or in the same order).
Literally transporting the audience through space and (less literally) time, the play creates a strong sense of the different places and spaces of public life in Wellington circa 1918. It's not the sort of play where you watch characters in a living room talking about something that's happening offstage. Wherever the action is, you will go there!
The performance is physically immersive, and the constant locomotion and stream of action helps create a sense of the confusion and disorientation of the crisis. However, it is not always emotionally immersive. I felt quite distant from the characters and struggled to identify with them, even when we were sharing a space or performing a task together. Perhaps this is because the characters themselves are so anxious to stay calm and under control; the characters beautifully capture the desire to resume the routines of everyday life after the war. It may also be that our attention is split between the fun of performing small tasks or enjoying tea, and the preoccupation with following the dramatic action as it continues around us.
Even while immersed the action, we mostly remain in ‘fly-on-the-wall' mode; although we are in the midst of a crisis, we are not asked to make any important choices or influence the outcomes of conflicts. Our only real choice is to wait politely for the scene to resolve and then follow a character to the next one. This format allows the spectators to feel safe and comfortable, but it also limits the potential for complete immersion.
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See also reviews by:
Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);