That initial excitement of stepping into a theatre, wondering how the theatre space will be used and in what context words and ideas will be played out, has to be a personal highlight. This moment of delightful anticipation, has been extended by Artistic Director Sean Holmes, with the launch of Secret Theatre, a run of shows, which remain unnamed (social media permitting), up until the moment the curtain falls.
The secret for the first show, which just so happens to be called Secret Show 2, lasted as long as the first interval, before a tweet by a critic led to a twitter storm and an inevitable shower of publicity for the season. But Secret Theatre is intended to be part of a larger, bolder design to “challenge” the existing strictures within theatre, and work against the “literalism” that, according to Holmes has come to define theatre, to its detriment. Holmes seems to be throwing up all the elements, which make up a theatrical experience, letting them fall where they may.
The first two shows, disappointingly, fail to meet the hype and expectation that inevitably followed both his launch speech and the secrecy that shrouds the shows.
Show 2 (which comes first remember) offers up a revival of an American classic. To avoid being literal, there are no American accents in earshot, making the piece feel fragmented. Three giant, white slabs become the canvas on which the group of related characters enact a sexually and emotionally charged play. This stage, although it captures the quality of modern art, is too sparse and expansive for the intimacies, which define the play. I imagine that’s the point: to loosen the structure of the play, but ultimately the essence of this much-lauded play is lost.
Show 1 is another classic. It’s an adaptation of an eighteenth century play by a German playwright. Here, the stage is draped in plastic, army-green sheets. There’s also a piano in the corner and three surveillance TVs in the corner. The company of actors first appear wearing browned vests and underpants. They drink water out of bowls on the floor, clambering over each other for the last drops. The curtain then falls before revealing a man in his underpants, running in a circle, tied to leash. He’s revealed as a soldier, who is being treated as a lab rat and observed on a diet of peas. Questioning the fabric of society and artistic expression are the pivotal points on which this production turns, and whilst there’s a dystopian feel to show 1, it feels too contrived.
Secret shows 2 and 1, appear to relish in being avant-garde and relentlessly quizzical. Perhaps the intent is deliberate, and my response is exactly as intended, but the shows become pretentious, which seems to be a feeble response to this call for change.
The cast are undoubtedly committed to the season. But in the case of shows 2 and 1, the mind boggled at the expense of any tangible engagement.
Secret Theatre, Show 2 and 1, Lyric Hammersmith