Punchdrunk’s Kabeiroi: A review

Night has fallen outside Euston station and I don’t have much time. She said she’d be back in touch in five minutes; I have already had three of them but I badly need a cigarette. I make a beeline for a man who is sparking his own. He hands me a Marlboro Gold and I light it hastily. “I’m really sorry I wouldn’t usually ask but I’m on an immersive theatre experience and I don’t have time to buy a pack.” He looks at me oddly, then over my shoulder to a typical train station scene. I start to fluster but continue. “The thing is an ancient cult has kidnapped my friend and I need to go and save him.”

I suddenly realise where I am, out in the open, so I lower my voice. “Oh, I should be quieter. I don’t know who is in on it. He could be in on it.” I point to an elderly gentleman in a kilt, and my smoking companion takes a step back. He is now looking at me with an odd mix of fear and pity. I remember the Greek mythology book in my backpack, so I rush to remove it. “Look! Ha!” I say triumphantly as I flick through the stapled-in notations and annotated drawings. “I’m not mad. They gave me this!” He nods slowly, clearly shaken, and says “don’t worry sweetheart, there are people out there madder than you… I’m sure.” The phone buzzes. I have to go. Red-faced, but determined, I bolt into the station.

No, I hadn’t actually lost my mind. I was midway through Punchdrunk’s most recent immersive theatre project, Kabeiroi. A show that attracted much hype due to limited tickets; only 432 pairs available via public ballot. The tickets carried an ominous warning: for adults and unsuitable for claustrophobics, pregnant women or those of ‘a nervous disposition.’ I knew I was in for a treat. But the tricks and treats of Kabeiroi surpassed even my high expectations. For an afternoon I was made to feel like the star of my very own action film.

Kabeiroi is based on Aeschylus’s lost tragedy about an Ancient Greek cult. It began as walking tour of London then switched to an action-driven tale of kidnap. Whilst under Punchdrunk’s spell I ran for my life, jumped out of my skin, was blindfolded in the back of a car and bound in a dark prison. The journey took me all over the city. From an underground car park to a clinically white storage facility to a boutique hotel to an east London warehouse. The first half was for an audience of two, but once my friend got kidnapped (or for him, I was kidnapped) at the hotel, I had to go it alone. It was long; about five hours in total. It was physically exerting; I power walked for miles. And it was raining; I didn’t bring a jacket. But not for one moment did I become disillusioned. This is because the success of Kabeiroi is not owed to its narrative, which at times is unclear, but instead to carefully crafted audience-manipulation.

The production relied on the fact that we did not know the format. We were told to suspect passers-by, and that we did, with increasing paranoia. Although we barely encountered the cast, being accosted by two actors early on was enough to convince us they were permanently on our tail. When the walking tour finished at the British Museum, our headphones were taken from us and we were left with just voicemail and text for instruction. Having attended Punchdrunk’s previous production, a large-scale immersive play set in a warehouse, I had expected to encounter far more actor-interaction. However, I am glad this did not happen. It would have killed suspense and reduced us to embarrassed giggles in the street.

The finale was accompanied by a drastic change in tempo. After being rescued from capture by my friend, there was a blur of commotion, deafening noise and flashing lights. We were chased through narrow corridors away from the large altar at which we managed to successfully complete our task. The danger may not have been real but the adrenaline in my veins most certainly was. The show finished with us being given a hero’s welcome by three goddesses as cinematic music surged to a climax. At the end of the day, both exhausted and emotionally drained, I couldn’t help but feel we deserved just that.

 

 

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