With an expectation of 50's entertainment, and armed with a bright lipstick, neck scarves, an adventurous mood and no shame of embarrassment, a trio of FoolishPeople arrived at the Old Vic Tunnels to be greeted by a much darker environment than expected. We found ourselves 'on the other side', being herded through cordons by stark policemen while listening to amplifiers announcing that ‘checks were taking place for our own protection’. After filling in our census, and narrowly avoiding being frisked by a guard, a letter A, B or C was assigned to our ‘passports’ before we were allowed to enter the main space.
Secret Cinema’s production of 'The Battle of Algiers' was a brave choice of film and topic with the Old Vic tunnels a brilliant choice of host, offering a very good visual transition into French Algeria, heavy with atmosphere and mystery.
Once we had explored the environment a little, and admired the intricate production design, we soon realised we had made a fatal mistake in our preparation for the event: we had all classed ourselves as Citizen As, purely as it made following the dress code easier, and were subsequently categorised as patriots, followers of the government.
Although our citizen status made it incredibly easy to buy a 'billet pour l'Angleterre' with ease, whilst other citizens were interrogated about their views on the government, being a Citizen A proved to be quite boring. Let's face it, conforming always is! We watched in awe as others were granted access to secret areas, and decided we would make it our mission to become a secret agent against the state.
Our first attempt started with chatting to co-conspirators, then fighting (almost physically!) with some of the actors over a piece of paper when a sudden breakthrough revealed itself when one of us was afforded the opportunity to deliver a bomb. However, the effort was thwarted when a guard noticed suspicious behaviour and the brief escapade ended in us being chased through most of the Old Vic Tunnels under the threat of arrest.
Our second attempt to become secret agents was a lot more successful. Once we got past being accused of being double agents, we were given a secret message to deliver to the bombmaker as a test of loyalty, and received something else to deliver back. As we were on the cusp of convincing the revolutionaries we were loyal, someone else entered who didn't trust us and started shouting again. In the hullabaloo, we managed to steal new identities without their knowledge, and we went on our way as official revolutionaries and a tremendous sense of achievement!
Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the production was Secret Cinema's dedication to keeping to the French language. Once you entered the tunnels you could hardly hear any English at all, and they'd obviously taken great care to cast actors who were authentic and believable using the language. This experience truly catapulted the audience into an alien environment, feigning the atmosphere of a foreign country successfully. It is refreshing to see a company take such a risk, as it would have been a lot easier to translate the experience for a mainly English audience.
Although it could be seen that some audience were initially apprehensive about the whole environment, we revelled in the experience – exercising our French lingual skills to attempt to communicate with the actors, and become a part of the living experience. Even those who seemed negative to begin with soon begun to enjoy the surroundings, proving that this type of immersive theatre does not rely on language and understanding, but experience and atmosphere.
However, one aspect that clearly let down the commitment of the actors, was the attitude or briefing of the caterers and some production staff. Although we understand the necessity of selling refreshments and using a large amount of helpers to facilitate the experience, it's a shame that the energy conjured by the performers and a lot of the Secret Cinema staff fell through these small holes in the narrative, when it could so easily be avoided. At one point we were even asked by someone serving us if we had guessed what the film was yet, how we knew of secret cinema etc. Although some may welcome a small amount of escapism from the experience, I think all of FoolishPeople are in agreement that we hate being reminded of an outside world, or that the experience isn't real in any way.
In fact, there's a South Park episode called “Super Fun Time” that could be comically likened to FoolishPeople's ethos when it comes to performance: Mr Garrison takes the fourth grade class on an educational field trip to Pioneer Village set in 1864, where dedicated actors never break their character, even when faced with a horrific hostage-situation. We are akin to those Pioneer Village actors, and would be horrified to see the audience catch a glimpse 'behind the curtains' or for anything to happen to destroy the illusion.
A tremendous effort had been put into the lighting and production design, with one of the most aesthetically strong areas being the caged prison you could walk around the edge of. However, the only disappointment was that performance inside this area seemed to have been overlooked. It didn't seem raw enough and slightly over dramatised, lacking truth, especially in reference to the film. We realise that it isn't really ethical to torture actors, but it doesn't have to take a lot of pain or acting ability to portray violence, or a strong sense of fear.
However, we were amazed that so many audience members remained fixed to the bar and dance areas as there was so much to do and find. As an audience member, you are very much in charge of your own experience: you need to get involved to look for hidden stories, be a living part of the experience. With these type of immersive events, it is imperative for you to make a little effort and interact with the narrative, for the beautiful moments to take shape.
We are aware that there has been a small amount of backlash recently of SC supporters who think the ticket prices are unjustified and have risen too steeply, but we can assure you, as fellow producers of site specific events, we can see the huge costs, effort and blind faith that goes into the production, performances, licenses and insurance for such events.
Secret Cinema's ability to produce such high quality events in such a short turnaround is admirable, and the experience is undeniably special for their audience. We would always recommend a visit if you are able to as Secret Cinema is incredibly exhilarating, unique and a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an evening.
By Lucy Harrigan & Tereza Kamenicka