Immersive Performance, Shakespeare’s Globe and the "Emancipated Spectator"

Friday, May 4, 2012

Let us start with three terms that have enjoyed some currency in performance and performance studies in recent times: the interactive, the participatory, and the immersive. Although they are not exact synonyms, they have been embraced by, and applied to, a variety of contemporary approaches to theatre-making and to theatre works themselves. At the outer limits, there is the fully immersive experience offered by the phenomenon that is You Me Bum Bum Train, a show which has been doing the rounds in the United Kingdom since 2004, which takes its individual audience participants on a journey that combines one-to-one interaction with the thrills of a theme-park ride, and which at one point involves audience members being forced to perform solo karaoke for the benefit of cast members who have themselves become the audience. The fastest-selling theatre show in the London Barbican Centre’s history when it visited in 2010, it appeals to the taste for experiential, environmental theatre that is also catered for by the likes of Badac, who claim to offer "extreme political art"1 in the form, for example, of their 2008 Edinburgh Festival piece The Factory, which inhabited a subterranean complex of abandoned beer cellars to steer audience members through a simulacrum of the mechanisms of extermination of Auschwitz. Likewise Punchdrunk, whose "roaming audiences" experience "epic storytelling inside sensory theatrical worlds."2 The rule of immersive performance being never to do anything by halves, their It Felt Like a Kiss (2009) found spectators being chased through darkened corridors of Manchester’s disused Quay House by actors wielding chainsaws. Such shows, though perhaps we should also term them events, play as much with the boundaries between performance and game as between maker and spectator; this boundary-shifting tendency is developed in work that incorporates interactive media and communication technology into the live event. Pre-eminent in this area is the work of Blast Theory, who in their two decades of existence have remained preoccupied with the "intermingling of the real with the virtual, the ludic with the performative and the playful with the serious"3: thus Uncle Roy all around you (2003 onwards) had its participants out on the streets of the cities in which it was staged, hunting for Uncle Roy, whilst equipped with handheld computers and a virtual map of the fictitious city that was superimposed upon their own.

A work that simultaneously embraced the site-specificity of material and particular urban spaces and digitally re-encoded it and them as media ghosts, Blast Theory’s Uncle Roy typifies immersive theatre’s characteristic habit of locating itself outside of conventional, or purpose-built, performance spaces. Not infrequently these are the sites of manufacture and commerce abandoned in the transition to post-industrial society—for example, dreamthinkspeak’s Before I Sleep for the 2010 Brighton Festival, which occupied the entire decaying four-floor co-operative department store and turned it into a haunting spatial exploration of The Cherry Orchard4. There are good practical and aesthetic determinants here: these places are cheap (or even, as for Before I Sleep, cost-free) to occupy, and often atmospherically sedimented with the traces of hidden histories; and the absence of stage-auditorium apparatus both lends itself to the elaboration of environmental mise-en-scène and facilitates the movement of crowds within and through the space, or spaces. But at stake also are important convictions about the nature of the theatregoing experience, and about how it differs from – some might say improves upon or even discredits – what is assumed to be the "conventional," or at least dominant, mode of theatrical delivery, which is that of the immobile, seated and (allegedly) passive spectator, positioned as consumer of a packaged spectacle, in which she is powerless to intervene. Interactive performance, particularly in its more media-savvy formats, may be the corollary of a blogging, texting and twittering culture in which everyone has to have their say and in which no-one can ever really be left alone; but it is born of the desire to restore to, to retrieve within, performance an experience of the immediate, of the authentic, that has within mainstream culture been lost. In conjunction with this runs the desire, at least in theory, to re-empower the spectator so that she is free, or at least freer, to interact with the work as she chooses, no longer its consumer but its co-creator. In practice, the rigorous and sometimes coercive stewarding, or policing, of the behaviour of participants in immersive performances means that their freedom of manoeuvre can be quite severely restricted, their range of interactive possibilities relatively limited, and their freedoms more rhetorical than real.

None of this is particularly new. The legacy of immersive performance extends back to the communal interactive experimentation of the 1960s avant-garde, which, in its determination to tear down the walls between art, activism and everyday life, routinely co-opted its audiences into operations, wherein, as Jacques Rancière describes it, ‘No longer seated in front of the spectacle, they are instead surrounded by the performance, dragged into the circle of the action, which gives them back their collective energy.’5 Rancière connects the poetics and politics of the immersive with Debord’s critique of the society of the spectacle, which he summarizes as a scheme in which man (sic) "gazes at…the activity that has been stolen from him…his own essence torn away from him, turned foreign to him, hostile to him, making for a collective world whose reality is nothing but man’s own dispossession."6 Rancière proceeds to dismantle the convenient binary between passive theatre watchers and active performance participants, and in the process also interrogates the claims that have been advanced for another of interactive performance’s other important reference points: the figure, as originally envisaged by Augusto Boal, of the spect-actor, who, as politically-empowered agent rather than recipient, is charged with the interventionist responsibility to transform the Aristotelian dramaturgy of reactionary inevitability into a theatre of revolutionary possibility.7 The politics of much "immersive" performance tend to be more muted, and more diffuse, perhaps inhering primarily in the circulatory dynamics of its characteristically pedestrian mode. Here we find common ground with the model of decentralised, individualised tactics of resistance proposed by Michel de Certeau, whereby the contingent and unpredictable pathways trodden by the city’s pedestrians constitute small but ongoing acts of disobedience to the metropolis’s totalising, disciplinary systems; hunting with Blast Theory for Uncle Roy, one hopes, at the least, that the interweaving of the virtual and real cities enable one to see the place where one lives with fresh eyes.8

Punchdrunk assert that their method "rejects the passive obedience usually expected of audiences," and it is a sentiment that, far from being confined to the avowed practitioners of the immersive, has become widespread within contemporary theatre culture, not least at Shakespeare’s Globe, repeatedly acclaimed by its users as the epitome of interactive Shakespeare, in which the plays are encountered within a best-guess replica of their originating context. On the face of it, this is an enterprise that is as far removed from the high-tech antics of contemporary immersive performance as it is possible to get; closer inspection suggests that it shares many of its core values (in particular, the idea that participation is enabling, empowering, democratic and even transformative). Soon after the Globe opened, Mark Rylance spoke of how the pressures of audience visibility within communal space solicited an audience-aware style of delivery that compelled the actor to treat even the most familiar of texts as an opportunity for shared discovery. Rylance invokes the true space of Globe performance, the space that Shakespeare’s texts envisage, as that of an imaginative realm between actors and audience, the place in which the play is collectively created. "My firm belief," Rylance states, "is that Shakespeare intended … meaning to be found in the imaginary space between audience and actors, hence the absolute necessity to explore the architecture that Shakespeare chose to define that space."9 This identification of imaginary space with the material space of the Globe itself deserves scrutiny: it stems from the belief that the sixteenth-century construct of recycled carpentry, plasterwork and incendiary thatching was not only the ideal platform for the works that premiered in it but the self-consistent, and in an occult fashion, precision-tooled medium of their articulation (rather than a already-outdated compromise knocked up as a consequence of the thwarting of the Blackfriars project). According to this line of thinking, the concordances between theatre space, texts, Shakespeare’s imagination, and the complicities between performers and audiences render the Globe as a machine capable of generating solutions to almost any of the problems of staging or understanding that the text may generate. The Globe showcases its works but also, in a potentially absolute and decisive sense, explains and contains them.

What we are faced with here is a radical site-specificity that, however much it has encouraged a rethinking of performer and spectator behaviour, is implicated within a reductive form of literalism, and one that yields some perhaps unexpected connections between reconstructed early modern performance and those forms of contemporary environmental, site-specific and immersive theatre that have, knowingly or not, placed Rancière’s "emancipated" spectator at the heart of their transactions. The more firmly rooted it seems within its immediate surroundings, the more at home it is within its environment, the more Shakespearean drama seems referential of (perhaps only of) those surroundings. When Hamlet illustrates his reference to "this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire" with a gesture towards the painted heavens, they become – just that. When the Chorus in Henry V embraces the auditorium with a sweep of his arm that designates it as the "Wooden O" simultaneously capable and incapable of accommodating Agincourt, it becomes just that. When Prospero predicts that the "great Globe itself" shall "leave not a rack behind" with a knowing look around the galleries, it becomes just that. At such moments, the performance acquires an almost tactile immediacy that is an objective by no means confined to Globe performance: in its way, it is a manifestation of the imperative of ‘relevance’ that underpins virtually all forms of current Shakespearean performance practice, This is the desire, as Simon Palfrey sees it, to obliterate the plays’ strangeness and difference by making them "work in some more immediately familiar framework." "Perhaps," Palfrey suggests both of the plays and of the histories that seek to "place" them, "we don’t really know either of them very well; or at the very least it will do us no harm to pretend for a while that we don’t."10

The problem posed by Globe performance – and I tentatively suggest that it may be endemic to all Shakespearean performance – is its tendency, possibly in spite of itself, to transform the abstract into the particular, the generalised into the specific, the exotic into the domestic, the extraordinary into the ordinary. Let us for a moment counter this, and together with it the received wisdom that Shakespeare’s positioning as a consummate theatrical professional made his works absolutely of and within their medium, by acknowledging the degree to which those works repeated resist and transcend the contingencies, circumstances and limitations of the theatres of their time. Whatever relationship Shakespeare’s surviving texts may have had to what was spoken in those places and elsewhere, they are not texts for performers or for performance, as the Folio’s editors make clear, but for readers; and it is as readers, and as theatregoers, and as readers who are theatregoers and theatregoers who are readers, that we encounter them. What this creates are exhilarating and disconcerting gaps in the texts between what can be shown and what can be imagined, and between both of these and what is beyond imagination: the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt; a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl; the accents yet unknown in which the assassination of Julius Caesar will be played and replayed down the centuries; an old man, blinded, led the edge of a non-existent cliff from which he falls and does not fall to death and redemption; another old man, exiting to his death, pursued by a bear. None of these conundrums are, I venture, advanced in the expectation that the Globe, or the Blackfriars, will prove capable of resolving them.11

I conclude with two brief examples. The first is taken from Christie Carson and Farah Karim-Cooper’s recent collection of essays and reflections on the Globe, and is in the form of an anecdote offered by Tim Carroll concerning the 2001 production of Macbeth:

During one performance, just after Macbeth had learned that his wife had died, a pigeon landed on the stage just in front of him…Jaspar [Britton], being the remarkable actor he is, immediately saw his opportunity. He looked at the pigeon as though its landing merely summed up the undignified absurdity of life. Then, when the pigeon began to walk along the front of the stage, it was as though this made a strange thought occur to Macbeth. He said "Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage"… and then he waited till the pigeon flew off before saying "And then is heard no more."12

What Carroll invokes is a random incursion of the extra-theatrical, of the everyday that, by happy accident, acquires an aura of the miraculous that is anchored within the momentary apprehension of discovery: "it was though this made a strange thought occur to Macbeth." It is an "in-the-moment" moment that many a performance artist would die for; yet the uncanny force of the pigeon’s (to use Michael Kirby’s terminology) "non-matrixed"13 intervention resides in the tension between the perception that he shouldn’t really be here and the recognition that, given the kind of place that it is, he cannot help but be so. It is, in a way, a mark of our failure to become truly early modern spectators that we notice the pigeons at all.

Notice them, nonetheless, we must; and it is this that prompts my second example. In the summer of 2010 I spent an agreeable afternoon at the Globe at a performance of Lucy Bailey’s production of Macbeth, a show that mapped the protocols of its own forms of interactivity in the shape of a massive black tarpaulin that extended into the yard, through which the heads of standees poked, a field a decapitated Thanes. Seated in the upper galleries, I was more than usually aware of the variously ambient and intrusive sounds that shape the Globe’s acoustic environment: the routine sounds of the city, but, in particular, the noises of powered flight, of jet engines and helicopter blades. Though I was only able to rationalise this in retrospect, what I fancied I heard was an amplified, technologized echo of the text’s own preoccupation with flight, with wings, and with creatures of the air, natural, sacred and diabolical; rather than breaking the play’s spell, these sounds from its future seemed to reinforce its claims upon a century in which mass slaughter has repeatedly descended from the skies. Through this aeriel soundscape fly the feathered friends and fiends of Shakespeare’s play – the sparrows, eagles, ravens, owls, falcons, crows, rooks, magpies, wrens, geese, chickens, kites, and temple-haunting martlets – and the prosaic, temporary denizens of the Globe itself, its pigeons, its martins, and its sparrows, who, like the plays to which they serve as serve as indifferent visitors, are never really at home in this place, always on their way to somewhere else; always, like ourselves, just passing through.


  • 1. ‘Welcome’,, accessed 14 October 2011.
  • 2., accessed 14 October 2011. Punchdrunk’s ‘immersive’ reworking of Macbeth, Sleep No More, occupied the fictitious ‘McKittrick Hotel’ in New York from Spring 2011until the end of the year.
  • 3. ‘About Blast Theory’,, accessed 14 October 2011.
  • 4. See The company’s 2012 Hamlet-based The Rest is Silence, co-produced with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London International Festival of Theatre, a more portable piece, premiered in a former warehouse space on the outskirts of Brighton during the Festival.
  • 5. Jacques Rancière, ‘The Emancipated Spectator’, Artforum, March 2007, 270-81: 274.
  • 6. Ibid. See Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle , third edition, trans. Donald Nicholson-Brown (New York: Zone Books, 1995).
  • 7. See Augusto Boal, The Theatre of the Oppressed, third revised edition, trans. Charles A. McBride and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride (London: Pluto Press, 2000).
  • 8. See Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
  • 9. Mark Rylance, ‘Playing the Globe: Artistic Policy and Practice’, in Shakespeare’s Globe Rebuilt, ed. J. R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 169-76: 171, 175.
  • 10. Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, second revised edition (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2011), p. 6.
  • 11. I am indebted here to the argument advanced by Dan Rebellato, who in his critique of site-specific performance identifies a body of recent British playwriting (including the work of Howard Barker, Martin Crimp and Sarah Kane) which, being determinedly not tied to the particularities of place and architecture, on occasions ‘suggests a deliberate attempt to make the plays, in part at least, unperformable’. See ‘Playwriting and Globalisation: Towards a Site-Unspecific Theatre’, Contemporary Theatre Review 16 (2006), 97-113: 112.
  • 12. Tim Carroll, ‘“Practising Behaviour to his own Shadow”’, in Shakespeare’s Globe: A Theatrical Experiment, ed. Christie Carson and Farah Karim-Cooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 37-44: 39.
  • 13. See Michael Kirby, ‘On Acting and Not-Acting’, TDR 16 (1972), 3-15; rpt. in Acting (Re)Considered, ed. Philip Zarrilli (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 43-58.