(HistoryRiot, Old Royal Naval College, Admiral’s House, 2022)
Review by Amanda Vilanova
Immersive theatre divides many theatre-goers; people love it or hate it. The former enticed by the blurring of lines between performance and audience; the latter put out by being forced to partake in something they want to sit back and observe. I have yet to see an immersive show that I love but have not lost faith in its possibilities.
I was intrigued, then, reading the producer’s description of HistoryRiot’s show, 1797: The Mariner’s Revenge: ‘The show has been created specifically for the attic rooms of Old Royal Naval College, a world heritage site. 1797 can only be performed here, making it a unique and unconventional theatrical experience.’ Though fascinated by the idea of taking over non-theatre spaces, I’ve rarely enjoyed it in practice. I often leave site specific work asking myself – what does theatre actually add to this space?
The night was dark and wet as I entered the Admiral’s House. We were a small audience, but there was an air of friendliness not often found in conventional theatre. But then, I suppose we weren’t at the theatre. We were sitting in an eighteenth-century drawing room sipping delicious rum cocktails, excited for a show. My musings were broken by the sounds of a powerful sea shanty being sung above us. We were led into a candlelit room where an injured mariner was being cared for. We crowded around the bed like hospital visitors. A friendly nurse entered and spoke to the bedridden man. Suddenly what we thought was an inanimate object hanging on the wall came to life –the first of many entertaining and haunting moments that moved between reality and fantasy.
The audience is led into two further rooms. We go back and forward in time to discover who this mariner is, what he has lost and how he hopes to avenge it. Audience participation is handled well with clear instructions as to when to move and what to watch, as well as moments left open for us to interact if we so choose. A gentleman and I were dragged into a song and dance, and enjoyed every minute of it.
The actors are physical, inventive and maintain infectious energy and stamina throughout, with most company members playing multiple roles and singing. Norma Butikofer is particularly enchanting as Nurse and Albatross, moving skilfully between human, animal, and something in between. Lighting and sound are used in clever ways to accentuate violent, poignant, and otherworldly moments, reflecting the loneliness, strangeness, and ruthlessness of an imagined life at sea.
I left thinking about how the piece really is for and about the Old Royal Naval College’s attic rooms and history. Though not perfect, it manages to bring the space to life and make the audience empathise with those who once walked its corridors. I think that the theatrical illusion makes it well worth a watch.