I never learn that ‘immersive theatre’ is simply fancy-speak for ‘audience participation’.
As I stand outside a block of flats in Manchester city centre, waiting for Operation Black Antler to begin, I start to feel nervous. I’ve recently taken part in The Crystal Maze and absolutely ballsed it up, so the fear of any physical exertion is deeply engrained.
But I needn’t have feared. Operation Black Antler, jointly presented by four-times BAFTA nominated artists’ group Blast Theory and critically-acclaimed immersive theatre company Hydrocracker, is more a workout for the conscience than the body (the event includes a tiny walking portion but that’s as taxing as it gets unless you count lifting a pint glass to your mouth as physically demanding).
Billed as a show where the audience is given ‘power and control’ and where we must ‘make decisions and reflect on the consequence of our actions’, it’s nerve-wracking stuff. From the beginning, we’re invited to enter the murky world of undercover surveillance and question the morality of state-sanctioned spying, and, I can’t lie, I felt a bit paranoid from the outset.
Who’s involved? What’s going to happen? Why is that fella in the mac staring at me? Is that really an Uber driver parked over there?
The show asks us to assume a new identity as part of a small team and then sends us on our merry way into an undercover operation. Once inside, you can choose to take part in a series of challenges that encourage you to consider what is and isn’t acceptable in the name of security. Having befriended our POIs, we’re then asked to report back and engage in a communal debriefing, although the choice is entirely in our hands. Post-election, chats about immigration, community and police surveillance are even more highly-charged.
I must admit that for the first ten minutes of the show, I’m concerned that Operation Black Antler might just be a piece of provocative role-play. From the cryptic clues, to the stereotypically brash and harassed police sergeant delivering an outline of the task to new recruits, it feels a little too dramatic. I don’t feel comfortable, and although I’m interested in the topic, I’m more concerned about what the next hour or so has in store.
But, as the show gets going, I become fully immersed, at times even forgetting that the situation is make-believe, which is a real credit to some of the fantastic actors. Stand out performances for me are Amyn Ali and Sarah-Jayne Butler, who don’t flinch or waiver, and ask probing adlibbed questions (and Alex Anderson who I simply presume is another member of the audience – “How did you get on at pool?” he asks. “Crap,” I reveal and he laughs).
We all feel dirty for getting involved, although I don’t say too much. I just sort of make noises of agreement but even these go against every fibre of my moral being. During a conversation, one of the characters makes a reference to the biceps of one of the younger male cast members. Ever the awkward-girl, I make a joke about one of the male members of my group giving them a feel. Evidently he’s more on the ball than I am. “No thanks,” he dismisses, pretending to be affronted.
“Why not?” the female actress states. The calibre of acting is so strong that you almost forget this is an imaginary scenario and the conversation immediately sets me on edge.
“Just not my sort of thing,” he says. “I don’t like it.”
She immediately warms to him, pulling him to one side before we leave and giving him her phone number with a promise of a ‘meet up’ soon. He’s obviously said something right.
As the show ends, we wish we had more time. We’ve secured a chat with one of the big players and, after exchanging pleasantries and the odd bit of fabricated xenophobic conversation, we’re starting to make real headway. Finally, the ‘fun’ part of the evening is over, now it’s time to make decisions, to have difficult conversations and essentially lie through our teeth.
My only criticism about the show, and I don’t know whether this says more about my being too reserved rather than going straight for the conversational jugular, is that it’s a slow burner. It takes us ages to ascertain information that might be of value.
But perhaps that’s the whole point of the project?
Questions are raised concerning the difficulty long-term undercover officers must face – where real connections and, dare I say it, even friendships are forged – not to mention the morality of such interactions. I’ve only spent 60 minutes in the company of these people, and I’ve already warmed to some of them.
“Erm…yeah?” I ask, like a right wally.
“Who?” I haven’t yet connected the dots. I wonder who on earth I’ve given my number to.
He repeats his name and says something else.
“Oh, hiya,” I shout, far too excitedly and before he’s had chance to finish. It’s safe to say, I’d make a rubbish undercover operative.
We huddle nearby, divulging our ill-gotten gains like small children eager to please, before being urged to decide the fate of the operation, and the characters. Although by now they feel more like real people.
“You know that their life will never be the same again?” states Swift, rather poignantly.
Operation Black Antler is thought-provoking theatre at its best and the grubby residue of the conversations we’ve taken part in are evident as we chat during the debrief held at HOME.
I don’t want to divulge too much detail as the beauty of Operation Black Antler is in the complete unknown. All I’ll say, is this: take a fully charged mobile phone, some cash and an open mind. Also, leave your dignity at the door. Not only did I play a terrible game of pool (I potted the white pretty much straightaway) but an actor followed me during The Cha-Cha Slide, chanting my name as I made a bee-line for the door. I’d like to say this was an unusual Saturday night for me, but I’d be lying.
Operation Black Antler is showing at HOME in Manchester until June 17, 2017