Shoreditch Town Hall (Barbican) – until 11 December 2011
Winding from the ornate meeting rooms and private recesses of power, where bureaucrats discuss policy and the media is entertained, down to the bowels of the building, through long forgotten corridors where concrete crumbles away from the walls and barren rooms echo to the sounds of clanking boilers and the scurrying of mice; Hydrocracker have created a staggeringly potent panorama of institutionalised state power, a lucid dream that unfolds to reveal nightmarish dimensions.
New World Order is an amalgam of five of Harold Pinter’s shorter work, deriving from his later period where his output began to more directly engage in questions of politics and control. Despite being a playwright who took fastidious care over every element of the script, it is hard to believe that Pinter, the political animal, would not have given his support to Ellie Jones’ superb reimagining that knits together five separate pieces so effortlessly that the joins between the work are made practically invisible (the only distinguishing mark being subtle changes in the linguistic character of different scenes).
Most impressive is the use of location to create a unity of action. Site-specific and immersive productions may have boomed in popularity in recent years, and as a result become short hand for companies wishing to demonstrate their innovation, but none has managed the unification of text and place that Hydrocracker have achieved through locating their work within Shoreditch Town Hall.
It is an inspired choice and the building is absolutely integral to the success of the piece. As the audience is led through the site, it becomes a living, breathing character of its own. Everything about the building exists in a contextual history of real politics, so when the audience halt on a staircase to let two policy wonks, deep in conversation pass, it is shocking to realise that rather than discussing the minutiae of planning regulations, they are in fact debating how many opposition supporters can be dealt with before they lose support of the general public.
Hydrocracker has clearly understood that location is everything. Led past a plaque detailing all the former mayors and into a conference room set-up for a press conference, the audience are reassured by familiar sights of the political establishment and are empowered to embrace the realism of the situation. It is only when people begin to speak that everything reveals itself to be off-kilter, and from that point on the audience are drawn ever further into the world of state-mandated terror.
What the production demonstrates with pinpoint clarity is not just state power at its most omnipotent (the Minister’s monologues, taken from ‘One for the road’, ably demonstrates Pinter’s unmatched ability to turn a casual turn of phrase into something horribly chilling) but also the state’s ability to exert its authority despite at times being barely competent. A running theme is the failure of a computer (in a typically Pinterish touch, we are informed it is suffering from a double hernia), whilst in another moment the audience is held up by a caretaker fixing the door (one of many subtle images of general bureaucratic inefficiency).
As in all the best promenade productions the audience is never entirely sure what it is important and what isn’t. As you are led through the building you encounter half a conversation or a scene clearly taking place just out of sight. To heighten the sense of audience dislocation, characters emerge from the audience and become part of the action; they disappear and reappear in later scenes. Tight stage management allows the audience to be split and it is never clear whether everyone has witnessed the same play. At times the audience is prompted into direct interaction but, unlike other immersive productions, this never feels unnaturally forced, and having been slowly gained a sense of unwanted complicity through the voyeuristic viewing of interrogation scenes, it is fascinating to watch how audience members handle these situations.
With New World Order, Hydrocracker has thrown down the gauntlet to companies of the calibre of Punchdrunk and You Me Bum Bum Train. Previously I have always had a degree of scepticism towards immersive productions and whilst the work of Punchdrunk is incredibly well thought-out there have always been question marks over its ability to impart a dramatic narrative that matches the quality of its sensory experience. Hydrocracker’s production has demonstrated that it is possible to completely immerse the audience in a way that could never have been possible within a more traditional theatrical space whilst still remaining within traditional narrative frameworks and respecting some of the strictures of theatre.
The biggest compliment that can be paid to this hugely impressive production is that having taken the works of one of the great playwrights of the 20th century and completely reimagined them, Hydrocracker have succeeded to such an extent that it is now difficult to conceive how they could be staged in any other way. Ellie Jones, as director, alongside the atmospheric and entirely appropriate lighting design of Tim Mascall, is clearly someone to watch with interest over the coming years. It runs until the 11 December and is now sadly sold out; however beg, borrow or steal a ticket as this is a late contender for production of the year.