He’s carrying a wooden stake and gesticulates savagely at someone who’s chasing him. He runs past us, down the alley and vanishes into a maze of tower blocks. We, the audience, are not queuing to see this show. This piece of unexpected ‘street theatre’ is real…too real! And we are desperate not to become ‘immersed’ in it.
We just want get out of this alleyway and into a derelict shop, 297 Hoxton Street, to see an innovative version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Part 1, by Retz Theatre Company, who are specialist in immersions of an unreal kind.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like to ‘keep it real’. But as T S Elliot once remarked ‘ mankind can only take so much reality’, and as I can see someone approaching with a ‘real’ knife, I defiantly feel as if I reaching my quota for the evening. You see , the part of Hoxton that we are in, has thus far, resisted the hipsters. It harks back to another era when the ‘old bill’ would only do the Hoxton beat in three’s – or so the locals tell me.
Anyway, the knife man still cometh- but at that moment, a tall friendly actor, with a cod Russian accent dressed in the uniform of a soviet block border guard, finally opens the steel plated door at the back of the shop; and we escape into the ‘ brave new world’, or the Republic of ‘Borduria’ created specifically by Retz to present ‘The Tempest’ part 1 of 6.
Like anxious tourists, we present our passports to be stamped by an intellectual looking young man in a cubby hole, ticket booth, before entering a lift that whisks us (you have to pretend) to the lobby of the ‘Claribel Hotel’. An eerie replica of a 1930’s Hotel, with dark undertones of the Lybianka in Moscow, where the Chika ( precursors to the KGB) tortured the soul out of the Russian intelligentsia.
It is very dimly light and there’s a disconcerting smell of rotting newspapers. As your eyes adjust to the light, you begin to take in the details: a life-size, social realist, portrait, of a Lenin like figure looks down on tattered sofas and coffee tables. A green 1930’s lamp shade faintly illuminates a drinks decanter and the debris of a make shift bar which also seems to double as the reception.
It’s a kind of literary hell. The inspiration for the set of many a film noir or American Gothic movie. The audience sits or stands where they can, among besuited men who are frozen in various poses, like stuffed animals in a taxidermists shop window : two loafers at a table play dominoes and an older bearded man stares into the distance, his face flickering under the light of black and white tv screens.
And then they begin to speak in that strange, unfamiliar, devilish sound of Shakespeare’s, which only adds to the dissonance of this weird tale of shipwreck, treachery and magic, like some dark intrigue played out in a pub lock -in. Prospero is the unseen ‘landlord’ of this dark island, manipulating the shipwrecks until they are slowly driven mad by the hauntings they are forced to endure.
Then at the end of the first act, its suddenly over. The shutter’s at the front of the shop are pulled up and the mellow evening light seeps in through netted curtains at the front end and sweeps the ghostly world of the Clariab Hotel away.
So what exactly had we witnessed? Was it a vision of The Tempest or a dark theatrical interlude, a Pinteresque experiment in atmosphere and style? Both, I suppose. The pleasure for me was the investment made, by the company in the make believe; the attention to detail. Their total commitment in creating an experience for the sake of the audience was inspiring.
Like all dreams, even scary ones, there’s a bit of Caliban in all of us that doesn’t want them to end. So I’m looking forward to the next installment. But for now a walk home through the bad lands of Hackney awaits and I just hope, that if I do encounter reality, I won’t have to endure too much of it.