There’s a whole strand of online theatre material which badges itself as interactive/immersive, but this is relative and covers a multitude of sins. You might be asked to track down a criminal mastermind/murderer or sit on a jury to examine evidence. Others give you options in order to select your own pathway through a particular storyline affecting the development and outcomes. A duo of sound plays by Rafaella Marcus takes things one stage further, casting you as part of the narrative and inviting you to carry out actions and simple tasks to fully immerse you in the experience. Called appropriately enough The You Plays they were released last year as part of 45 North’s first series of audio dramas Written On The Waves; a second series has already been announced.
The first of the pair is small acts which is helmed by Katherine Parkinson as a narrator/guide; she issues instructions throughout intended to enhance the experience. Parkinson finds just the right intonation for this second person narrative, playful one minute and almost threatening the next. She asks you to hold your breath, close your eyes or sip some water; that’s simple enough. At the next level you are asked to imagine something, imitate a sound you hear or splash some of the water on your face to simulate rain. Then there are challenges which are either impossible or you may not care for – count every grain in a bag of rice, pluck out a hair from somewhere on your body. Whether you accept the challenges or not they are there to integrate you into the experience and although you could certainly let your imagination do the work, participation takes things to the next level. Towards the end you are even prompted with dialogue to deliver so that you become a true character in the play.
The conceit is a clever one and rather more successful than the narrative which is somewhat disjointed (but I think that’s partly the point). For most of this play it would seem that you are in the head of King Leontes from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale as you are encouraged to experience the jealous rage which drives him in that play. Then with a leap forward (sixteen years – the same as the Shakespeare) you seem to be at some sort of festival where Leontes’s daughter Perdita is being given instruction in the legend of the Fisher King (by Florizel??). There’s also lots of references to the Grimm Brothers fairy tale The Six Swans. These archetypal stories blend together to form a tapestry about innocence and experience. The last section, I confess, started to lose me entirely – I think it was about an attack/rape but please don’t quote me on that.
Volume 2 of the pair, The Haunted Woman, is at the same time more straightforward and even more intricate. The unnamed narrator is this time played by Olivia Williams who is recording a lengthy message via a dictaphone to her ex-partner trying to analyse what went wrong in their relationship; in this version the “you” of the play is the recipient of the spoken letter and so she speaks directly to the listener. He/you is a musician though not, by all accounts, a particularly successful one and there are reflections on how the drive to be an artist affects personal relationships. Also woven through the piece are sections where the narrator is haunted by a sense of impending dread as the shadows of her own mind close in around her and her psychological state goes from bad to worse; we start to share her sense of dread – for the full effect listen to this at dead of night.
One of the woman’s obsessions is puppetry and during the course of the play you are encouraged to make a simple stick puppet with basic stationery materials (“it’s all a bit Blue Peter” the narrator tells you). Then with the aid of a torch you explore the rather haunting and unsettling world of shadow puppetry. As before you can dodge all this if you want but for the full effect it really is best to follow instructions/suggestions – if nothing else it helps to focus the mind on what is being listened to. Williams does an even better job than Parkinson in creating atmosphere and this is enhanced by the truly creepy soundscape which has been realised by Dinah Mullen and directed by Jessica Lazar. The whole thing is deeply unnerving and best listened to on headphones; if you can find a dark room then so much the better .. or indeed, worse.
The You Plays are part of the project Written On The Waves which is available on the 45 North website – click here
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