Tuesday 8 August 2017

EIF 2017 - Flight at the Churchill, or, An Unusually Strong Reinvention of the Form

In advance I had misgivings about this show. Descriptions made it sound like another variation on immersive theatre of the kind seen at recent Festivals in, for example, The Encounter (about which I had more mixed feelings than many). This does turn out, at least as far as my experience is concerned, to have an originality of design which is most impressive. I also found it, more successfully immersive than The Encounter. The narrative which all this serves is, however, more problematic.

The design of this show is essentially a revolving diorama – with the screen divided into windows of various sizes which light up in turn as the story progresses. You sit alone in a tiny dark booth while the lighted windows pass before you, and the soundscape and dialogue unfolds over a pair of headphones. The detail of the designs in the windows by Jamie Harrison and Rebecca Hamilton is remarkable.

The story, adapted by Oliver Emanuel from a novel by Caroline Brothers describes the journey of a pair of Afghan refugee brothers from Afghanistan to London. I am naturally resistant to this type of non-traditional theatre piece, so it is a tribute to this one that often it did suck me in – the sea crossing early on, some of the isolated moments on the Greek farm, the nicely unexpected American encounter in Italy particularly stood out. But, as it progresses, I found two weaknesses with the narrative. First of all substantial leaps in time start to occur, without enough explanation as to how the brothers have survived from point A to point B. Secondly, the narrative basically never strays from the perspective of the two brothers, indeed the various authority figures they encounter are not even allowed voices. I take the point that the aim is to convey the unintelligibility of what these figures say to the brothers, but the ultimate effect on me was resistance. I don't, as I've said before, like being instructed to sympathise with particular people. As with a lot of theatre at the moment, I think this would finally have been a stronger piece if it had allowed the other side of the argument – the reasons for barriers and police etc. - to be more fully represented.

One other niggle – I would drop the tiresome business of having the audience “check in” at the start of the performance. You can easily queue your audience up in groups without trying to make it a rather unconvincing prelude to the actual show. It came across to me as gimmicky and unnecessary.

This is worth seeing for the visual achievement. For sections it did immerse me, but in the end I still found it possible to stand aside emotionally. This is a surprisingly strong reinvention of the theatrical form, but for me there were still limits to its power.

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