Taking Promenade Theatre Online: Shakespeare Ensemble’s What You Will
Shakespeare Ensemble’s What You Will, curated by Ben Crystal, is the latest offering of COVID-created Shakespeare. It’s a now familiar refrain: the global lockdown meant that the Shakespeare Ensemble’s plans (an R&D session in the Welsh mountains followed by two shows in the USA) were cancelled. Inspired by, and in response to, the creative output of other theatre groups in lockdown, the Ensemble sought to move the immersive promenade theatre model online.
What You Will is the next iteration of digital theatre — Big Telly/Creation Theatre’s Alice: A Virtual Theme Park has a similar feel — a ‘pick your own adventure’ model. Rather than asking viewers to sit and watch a digital stream, this new model places the audience member in control of the narrative. However, I wonder whether ‘audience member’ is the right term — would ‘visitor’ be more accurate?
On arrival in the Illyria of the production I was presented with a map: nine images representing nine characters. Each link took me to a live stream of the actor at home. Where I travelled, who I visited and for how long was up to me. There were gently suggested routes — options of one or more characters I may want to visit next — but ultimately, I settled on opening nine tabs and moving between them on impulse, pausing until it felt right to move on. Sometimes I let the sound of one stream play over another, allowing the streams to merge and combine, hearing the street noises of Orsino’s (Anirudh Nair) Delhi playing over Malvolio’s (Colin Hurley) England — all merging with the ambient noise of a warm August evening in my mountain village in Switzerland, the gentle hubbub of meals outside and cowbells in the Alps. The sense of community and connection was made through a separate Zoom meeting, where visitors could mingle in the chat and receive hints and suggestions from an omniscient ‘William Shakespeare’ — a virtual theatre lobby, if you will, filled with names I recognised from the virtual theatre circuit, people I had ‘gone’ to the theatre with before.
Belch (Daniel Beaulieu) — a character subtitled ‘Addiction’ — was where I spent most of my time. I felt compelled to watch as he moved around his apartment drinking. It wasn’t entirely enjoyable. As he drunkenly looked directly into the camera and challenged me to intervene, I felt at once compelled to do something but also powerless. It was uncomfortable. I was reminded of the physical reaction I had watching Bartholomew Fair at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2019, as Joshua Lacey’s punter ran his finger up and down drugged Win Littlewit’s (Boadicea Ricketts) leg. We made eye contact, his half smile challenging me to act. It took a lot of will power not to leap over the barrier and protect the vulnerable Win. I felt trapped, my reaction visceral. I felt the same connection watching Belch self-destruct. I wasn’t alone. Unable to intervene, one of my fellow visitors in the Zoom chat typed ‘NO TOBY NO’ as Belch rummaged through cupboards and started downing mouthwash slumped in his bathroom. It felt oddly isolating: powerless to act, I could only watch; I felt very alone. Olivia (Renee Rose) and Andrew (Hiroaki Kurata) — subtitled ‘Grief’ and ‘Melancholy’ respectively — had a similar isolating effect. Whereas Belch moved around his apartment, both Andrew and Olivia were static: Olivia seated in her New York garden, Andrew in Japan in a single, sparsely-furnished room. They were comfortable in their own company — Olivia meditatively blowing bubbles, Andrew making origami animals. But to each a sadness; a sense of loss. Watching their private contemplations felt voyeuristic.
Maria is a character often overlooked in Twelfth Night, but it is Maria that is instrumental to the plot: the gulling of Malvolio is her idea, she executes it, and ultimately benefits from it. She marries upwards, out of her social strata — achieving as a reward for her plan the very thing Malvolio was mocked for thinking possible. Presenting two Marias — two aspects of her motivation, ‘Ambition’ and ‘Opportunism’ — allowed her to step out of established readings of the play. It was here that I was most comfortable waiting and watching. Here was positivity, hope. I watched Amba Suhasini Katoch Jhala’s Maria — ‘Ambition’ — trying on the clothes, the identity of her new role as Sir Toby’s wife, as she transformed from maid to lady: a positive calm, a moment taken for herself. Xdzunúm Trejo Boles’s Maria — ‘Opportunism’ — was more unbridled joy, dancing and singing. I was reminded of the cliché ‘dance like no-one’s watching’, although Boles was always aware the audience was there — moving the camera, inviting us in. Viola (Em Thane) — subtitled ‘Rain/Reign’ — was equally positive. Their stream started at home as Viola dressed before leaving for a walk in the country. The appearance of sheep created a moment of light-hearted observation and comment in the Zoom chat, and I flipped over to the stream to catch a glimpse and join in the group experience. At one point, Viola’s stream was, for a while, just grass and the ambient noise of the English countryside. Viola returned wet, as if from swimming — a moment taken for themselves we had not been invited to see. There was a symmetry with Nair’s Orsino dressing in women’s clothes. There was a sense of freedom as he adopted a new role, spinning and twirling as he danced around his apartment. As he walked out into the Delhi night, he was met by a pack of dogs who happily span and swirled around him. It was liberating.
It was Malvolio — ‘Madness’ — that felt most like a performance. Colin Hurley’s Malvolio was endearing, content in his madness and offering snippets of wider Shakespearean texts — merging Lear with Malvolio as he played with fairy lights and his yellow garters. Confined within a black tarpaulin ‘prison’, he alone had a fabricated set. It was here that I felt we were closer to the Twelfth Night source text — to a narrative, rather than emotive response. However, this was not a production to engender comfort. As the streams came to an end, Hurley peaked around his tarpaulin prison, looked out of the created reality and into the actor’s reality, into a room filled with books. It was a compelling moment for me — the idea that we are all isolated at home, conversing via screens, presenting an image of who want to be. In an instant, I could see both Malvolio’s aspiration and his self-made prison. It resonated. Through lockdown, I have invited people into my home — albeit via screen — and felt myself slowly reveal more of my ‘at home’ rather than ‘in public’ persona. My home at once both prison and freedom.
There were echoes and symmetries throughout the production, as Feste offered an intermittent soundtrack to the other characters’ activities — a musical heartbeat that connected the disparate vignettes. ‘Ambition’ Maria, Viola and Orsino all changed clothes and adopted new identities; Belch, Viola and Orsino used water, appearing soaked, cleansed. Across the vignettes appeared shared motifs: gold, dancing, fairy lights. We were simultaneously connected and disparate, together-apart. It was strangely isolating; my overwhelming emotions were loss and loneliness. But that’s not a bad thing: good theatre makes you feel. Much of the lockdown theatre to date has been uplifting, a moment of silliness in dark times. However, this felt honest, and reflected the realities of lockdown. It reflected the moments we’ve all had when we weren’t doing Zoom cocktail hours and quizzes. It was the moments where we grieved for lost opportunities.
This was less a performance than an experience — no two visits can be the same. I can’t suggest that my route was optimal, nor would I want to. I do feel like I missed things, that I was excluded. I wonder whether that’s the point. These were snapshots, stolen moments, the parts of life I wasn’t supposed to see. I’m intrigued as to how this performance will feel once pinned down, contained in a permanent state. How will I watch then? Will I feel the need to flick between the vignettes? Or will I find the emotion that most closely matches my own — find a kindred spirit in isolation? I am normally itching for the permanent version of a performance to be made available, impatient to be able to check my memory, relive a favourite moment — I’m the person who rebooks for a theatrical performance on the way home! But here, I’m glad for the wait — for the space to sit with my initial emotional response for a while.
What You Will
Presented by Shakespeare Ensemble via Webstream, 8 August 2020. Curated by Ben Crystal. With: Hazel Askew (Feste — Song), Xdzunúm Trejo Boles (Maria — Opportunism), Renee Rose (Olivia — Grief), Em Thane (Viola — Rain/Reign), Amba Suhasini Katoch Jhala(Maria — Ambition), Daniel Beaulieu (Belch — Addiction), Colin Hurley (Malvolio — Madness), Hiroaki Kurata (Andrew — Melancholy, and Anirudh Nair (Orsino — Vanitas).