“Don’t be late,” said the director when I interviewed her for Northern Soul.
I knew why. Audience members wandering in halfway through would be devastating to the illusion of containment in a play about a detention centre. So when I screeched up to the venue a minute past the allotted starting time, I was already resigned to the fact I was going to miss it. To my relief, there were still a few people milling around the foyer.
“Stocker?” said the woman by the front desk.
“That’s me,” I panted. “I thought I was late for a second.”
“You are!” She shooed me on my way. I was handed a form and sprinted up the stairs towards the performance. Clambering up the final few steps, I found myself in an entirely empty corridor. On instinct, I shot to the left.
The voice boomed down the corridor and I stopped like a startled rabbit. A woman down the end of the hall was motioning to me sharply. She was wearing a high-vis jacket and looked furious. Lord, I thought, these Z-Arts security people take their jobs seriously. As I approached, a friendly smile flashed across her face before darkening with a frightening intensity.
“Actually I’m looking for…”
“Arms UP,” she snapped.
Bewildered, I obeyed as she ran a scanner over me. I noticed a man undergoing a similar procedure nearby and then it dawned on me: this was it. I was in the performance. It had been seamless, with no warning. Well, almost – suddenly, that smile made sense to me. I was ushered through the checkpoint briskly, hardly daring to look any of the actors in the eye. Several paper notices on the walls informed me that I was about to be blindfolded, and if I wanted to opt out I should let them know now. I wobbled slightly. I wasn’t prepared for this, and it made me very nervous. But then, wasn’t that the point?
Reluctantly, I allowed the cloth to be lowered over my eyes. A calm voice informed me when and how I would be moved, and I was guided gently to my seat. Even through the blindfold, I could still pick out the bright beams of the stage lights. I felt like I was sitting before a firing squad. Sharp footsteps echoed up and down behind me. I tensed, expecting on a tap on the shoulder. Wait, why was I tensing? This was a performance and I was an audience member. Why was I so uneasy?
It was a question I kept asking myself throughout Rule 35, an immersive show about the fear and isolation of women held in detention centres like Yarl’s Wood and featuring former detainees in the lead roles. We were seated in a circular fashion, all facing towards a central area that served as the stage. On the outskirts of this circle, behind the audience, guards were a constant presence. Occasionally they shouted something to the actors in the centre, over the heads of the audience. The overall effect was to make the theatre feel far smaller than it was, with us trapped in the middle. When they called people up to be “processed,” I breathed a small sigh of relief every time someone left their seat, relieved because that someone wasn’t me.
Everything was a constant barrage of light, sound, shouting and movement. Even during scene shifts, those footsteps still paced constantly. The audience members were allowed time to compose themselves during a few short moments, but these spaces were broken by a shrill whistle before the shouting recommenced and the stage, once again, descended into a masterfully cultivated chaos.
It was touches like these that brought Rule 35 to life, producing visceral feelings of paranoia and fear. Throughout it all, I was aware of my irrational nerves. I had the safety net of knowing this was all pretend, and that no one would stop me leaving. But that wasn’t an option for the women who’d experienced it for real.
Meanwhile, the acting itself was peculiarly divisive. In some senses, it was unpolished. Some lines were delivered stiffly, and a few of the interactions were palpably stilted. At the same time, there was a furious energy which shone from every single performer throughout the show. Indeed, I got the sense that some of them were only half-acting. Instead of just re-creating these scenes, they were actually reliving them. Especially powerful were the examples of failed healthcare in the detention centres, with a single inadequate or incompetent professional assigned to hundreds of detainees. Some were more upsetting than others – I was particularly shaken by the deportation of a pregnant detainee – but none shed any form of favourable light on Yarl’s Wood.
Each section was interspersed with a song, which induced a similarly mixed reaction. At first I found the music to be a distraction, bringing the play screeching to a halt and breaking the spell of the immersion as guards and detainees suddenly broke character and clustered together. However, the tunes were important in their own right, reminding us that we were not watching paid actors in a play; we were watching real women who had experienced real horror. In short, while they lacked a certain finesse, it could be argued that the songs served a valuable purpose in reminding us of the urgency of their story. This is still happening right now, it seemed to say. You have to stop it.
Despite the occasional kink in the system, as a piece of theatre Rule 35 is innovative, distressing and defiant. But what really sets it apart is its call to action, its direct appeal to the audience. Assisted by factual captions from surrounding screens, the honest, angry and heartfelt performances from its actors is what makes Rule 35 uniquely powerful. It’s not exactly a joy to watch, but it’s a marvel of immersive theatre.
By Jack Stocker