Immersive theatre has become increasingly popular in recent times, no doubt down to the success of productions like Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man. But this form of theatre presents a troubling dichotomy: narrative vs experience. When audiences are left to roam freely in the theatrical space, does this really allow for a semblance of plot? Or is the joy purely that of personal experience?
LAStheatre face a similar dilemma with their new production, New Atlantis. Performed in The Crystal building at Royal Victoria Docks, providing a suitably futuristic glass-walled setting, the production transports us to the year 2050. Owing to climate change, the Earth’s water supplies are dwindling and the future of mankind is hugely uncertain. Its fate is in the hands of New Atlantis – a UN-like organisation – but with their leader retiring, their agents (that’s us!) are tasked with voting on a new leader. Meanwhile, the mysterious Generation Alpha group plot to overthrow New Atlantis for themselves.
There are three options: representatives from the departments of Defence, Reform and Industry. After a short introductory film and speech we are left to explore the various offices of these departments, to understand their policies and their methods of saving mankind. Defence, for instance, seeks to use the military to defend our supplies and protect civilisation from piracy and war; Reform aims to put democratic power in the hands of the population, changing our habits through environmentally friendly scientific practice and rationing; whilst Industry looks at innovative technology for biofuels, asteroid mining and space travel. A final debate provides a climactic conclusion where our votes are counted.
(On a side note, I voted for Industry because space travel. We’ve all seen Wall-E, nobody wants to live on an Earth like that.)
We are somewhat thrown in the deep end though. Sure, exploration is part of the thrill of immersive theatre, but the opening section packs in a lot of exposition without really explaining our decision-making clearly or directing us. The offices are filled with data charts, gadgets and computers, which is all a little overwhelming if it weren’t for the actual scientists from UCL on hand to explain everything (alongside actors to keep the story going). Never has theatre been so informative. We learnt about measuring the temperature and salinity of the ocean, the movements of glaciers in the Arctic, debated the merits of veganism, played with space-age gadgetry and more. It’s clear that a lot of time, effort and money has gone into the research and development of this piece, ensuring everything is scientifically accurate. In depth conversations could have easily gone on for hours, but with limited time we had to skim through each room and still missed some out.
Is this really theatre though? For the most part, the production feels more like a science museum or geography field trip – albeit one that’s incredibly interesting, but with a loose and richly thematic plot. Pulled back into the debate before our final vote and it all suddenly feels too scripted with the larger-than-life characterisation of the three potential leaders taking centre stage. And then a final twist pulls the rug from under our feet, adding a fourth option to our voting process with little explanation.
Ultimately, the production’s final moments raise more questions than it answers. After the votes are tallied, we never see the outcome or impact of our decision, for instance a short video as to what happened in the following years. Was it game over for humanity? We never find out. Further, is the outcome the same every time, our vote a sham? In which case, what is the point?
Perhaps none of the options are really viable: we’re screwed no matter what we choose. In that sense, New Atlantis is a wake-up call and a call to arms for us to take responsibility for the future - particularly important and engaging during an election year. On a narrative level, then, it’s anticlimactic, frustrating and dissatisfying, yet I left feeling as if I’d genuinely learnt something. As a form of education, New Atlantis makes learning a fun, dramatic and interactive experience.
Watch: New Atlantis is performed at The Crystal from 19th -25th January.