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Power, prayer and pleasure: Since I Suppose at the Melbourne Festival

Since I Suppose, currently playing at the Melbourne Festival, is participatory theatre at its best. Credit: Paul Moir. Melbourne Festival

As the contemporary debate about surveillance and data-retention rages, it seems there’s little room left for mystery. Since I Suppose, an interactive and immersive artwork at the Melbourne Festival, by local company One Step at A Time Like This, is an utterly compelling argument for the joys of anonymity.

Immersive and interactive

Since I Suppose is a journey for two through public and private Melbourne, using audio, “follow films” and embedded performers. It builds on One Step’s highly successful en route, which received critical acclaim and toured extensively after its first iteration in 2009.

Interactive and participatory artwork has been developing rapidly over the last decade, and there are a number of important formal, aesthetic and conceptual reference points. The UK-based theatre company Punchdrunk, has been enormously successful with its large scale immersive environments. Blast Theory, another UK company, pioneered the use of technology to create immersive, augmented-reality works such as Can You See Me Now (2001) and Uncle Roy All Around You (2003).

The world’s a stage

The show begins with a sense of anticipation, as we wait in the lobby of the Melbourne Grand Hyatt for a phone call. The phone rings, and we’re taken to meet the Duke (wearing cap, moustache and sunglasses) who, with some deft card-tricks, gives an introduction to the story, and an invitation to play.

We’re given a smartphone and headphones, and this technology guides us through the city. The show makes excellent use of the “follow film”, a surprisingly effective illusion where the viewer matches the small screen video up to the real street, and follows the character on the screen.

From the very beginning, the “edges” of the show are carefully obscured, and the line between the play world and the real one becomes difficult to discern. Just like the card-tricks, carefully managed misdirection and sleight of hand create a heightened perception and suspicion – who is in on the trick, and who isn’t?

Cannily, the rules of the game we are invited to play are never clearly stated. Because of this, the everyday streets appear as never before: the world becomes a stage.

Poetics of interaction

Since I Suppose achieves an impressive choreography of performances: social, technical, theatrical and even economic performances are interwoven, and there is an immense pleasure in the twists, turns and surprises of the experience.

What makes this show more than a large handful of tricks and novelties is the way the form it fitted to the content of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

While there have been many notable contemporary visions of Shakespeare’s plays, including Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More (2011), Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Roman Tragedies (2007), and of course cinematic adaptations – such as Ten Things I Hate About You (1999) – Since I Suppose engages with Measure for Measure on a more experiential level.

Rather than simply transposing the plot in time, it draws out themes of power, religion and pleasure through a number of visceral, intimate and confronting experiences that attempt (generally quite successfully) to provide audiences with a emotional insight into the characters of the play, be it the scandalised Isabella, imprisoned Claudio, or the intimate subterfuge of both Mariana and Angelo.

While aficionados of the text may take umbrage, it has the potential to make the play accessible to a much wider audience.

Audience agency

A question in Shakespeare’s text that isn’t addressed, perhaps deliberately, is the question that troubles the Duke. The question of how to govern.

The question translates readily to the interactive and participatory arts: how much freedom and choice do audiences actually have? As the company name suggests (One Step At A Time Like This) there cannot be total freedom, lest, as the Duke fears, “The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart goes all decorum”.

Since I Suppose achieves an excellent balance, creating a tightly choreographed and controlled experience that feels free. There is a high level of craft in the way the audience is given just enough time to think, for imagination to take hold, before being swept up by the next surprise.

It’s hard to know when, exactly, the show ends after two and a half hours of head-tricks and bed-tricks. Only when you receive a text message stating that it’s over are you absolutely sure. Importantly, the message also asks that you keep the secrets of the show to yourself. How apt that a show which deserves to be one of the most talked about of this year’s Melbourne Festival is one that you’re not supposed to talk about.

Since I Suppose is at the Melbourne Festival until October 26. It’s performed as part of the Arts House program. Details here.

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