27 November 2008

You do not come across shows for just one audience member very often. Even at the Edinburgh Fringe, that great orgy of theatrical experimentation, they are uncommon, let alone amongst the conservatives tastes of Cambridge. Telltale Productions’ Submerge is exactly that, and whatever its quality, Josh Seymour and Jess Hyslop deserve enormous credit for trying something so ambitious and different. Fortunately it is brilliant as well.

Led down to the basement of the English Faculty and then abandoned, it is difficult not to feel slightly unnerved, as you stand in a pool of red light with the faint strains of music coming from behind the closed door of the studio in front of you. Indeed this feeling of trepidation never leaves during the whole experience: even though nothing genuinely frightening actually happens, you find yourself constantly on edge, half expecting something to jump out at you (the rational part of your mind does try to remind you that it is a play in the English Faculty not a ghost train, but to no avail), and the play is filled with strikingly unsettling images. You begin your journey in the drama studio – an underused space, that finally has its full potential realised here – where four actors whirl around you, singing, dancing, and enacting scenes of alternate recognition and desolation. You are not allowed to sit idly by, however, for you soon find yourself pulled into the action, at one point even marrying one the characters. It is a strange experience to be so much among the actors; it is one thing to break the fourth wall, another for an actor to smash through it and come nose to nose with you. You almost feel that you ought to start acting as well, and Seymour obviously has a lot of fun playing with this uncertainty: as you leave the main studio space, you are pulled back by a sobbing girl, begged not to leave her alone in the dark, but still led inexorably on. Later another character will look into your eyes and implore you to forgive them, and it is desperately tempting to reassure her. The actors deserve limitless praise for their conviction: acting in such close proximity to an audience is never easy, particularly when the emotional stakes are as high as they seem to be for the characters here, and your audience member is simply staring blankly back at you.

In fact the highlight of the show comes when you have left the main studio, to be led into through the labyrinth of corridors behind it, and you find yourself shut in a tiny room with a single actress. Kneeling together on the floor bathed in fading blue light, she sings ‘My Darling Clementine’ to you with such trembling passion that the potential absurdity of the situation is totally forgotten, and you are left feeling that you are genuinely sharing a private, emotional experience with another human being.

The image of her large, imploring eyes fixed on you as they disappear into the gathering darkness is the most striking and memorable of the production. This was a unique and utterly compelling piece of theatre, and Telltale Productions are clearly a company worth watching out for. If they can match Submerge in terms of innovation and execution, then they have a bright future ahead of them.