I’m sitting in the lobby of Melbourne’s Grand Hyatt hotel, with my mother and two of her friends. The three of them are visiting Melbourne for the weekend, and one of them had the cool foresight to book the four of us into an immersive theatre experience. I haven’t researched the show yet, so I have no idea what to expect – that’s partly circumstantial, and partly a deliberate decision. The show, crafted by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and Australian company one step at a time like this, wears an aloof aesthetic of mystery from the outset, so going in cold might just be the best way (and yes, this review contains “spoilers” – the Melbourne season’s wrapped up, but if you think you might take part in another iteration of Since I Suppose one day, consider that the next few paragraphs may foil a few surprises). We sit for a few minutes, phones in hand – then one phone rings, and mum’s two friends follow the voice on the other end of the line, which guides them up a flight of stairs – and they’ve vanished.
We wait. The breezy, inoffensive two-chord lilt of the lobby music rocks back and forth endlessly. At last – about fifteen minutes later – the phone in my hands rings too. A female voice – half-whispered, furtive, but relaxed – asks if I can see the staircase. I tell her I can. “Meet me at the top of the stairs. I’m wearing a red dress.”
So we climb the stairs, past the gently bubbling water feature and the bronze sculpture, until we sight the Woman In The Red Dress. Wearing a calm, professional smile, she sits us down next to an artificial fireplace, hands us smartphones and headphones; shows us how to use the purpose-built app. Her face remains eerily consistent throughout, and her voice that continuous, measured half-whisper. She explains that each “track” in the app, be it audio or video, will be a chapter in our journey: a chapter that we can pause, rewind, fast-forward if we need to. It will guide us through the city and through the narrative that ahead. Once this technical introduction’s complete, she promptly blindfolds us with strips of thick fabric and – along with another, hitherto unseen player – whispers questions in our ears:
Do you have any siblings?
A brother or a sister?
Are you close?
How far would you go to save their life?
Have you ever wanted anyone so bad you’ve acted irresponsibly?
The quiet interrogation ends; the blindfolds come off. Where there had been a woman in a red dress there is now a man in a black cap, dark aviator sunglasses, a phoney black moustache and generic street clothes. He’s shuffling cards absently. He looks at us now, and begins to show us cards – the king, the jack, a card he names “the brother” and cards with scantily clad models and nuns on them. Some of them disappear in his hands and reappear in the deck, or in a wallet. In any case, they all become props in a narrative exposition – “the story so far” – which is loosely based on William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. It’s not a play I’m especially familiar with, so I’m grateful for the run-down – I’ll spare you my own artless synopsis, but suffice it to say we’re dealing with matters of deception, loyalty, religion, sacrifice, false identities, and overbearing policing of people’s sex lives. The man with the phoney moustache bids us commence Track 1 on our devices, and suddenly the moving image on our screen matches almost perfectly the scene in front of us; a glass door leading to a hotel courtyard. The only obvious difference on the screen is that in the middle of it all, there stands a nun, clad in an all-white habit. She gestures for us to follow her. A voice in the headphones asks us to suppose this is the city gate. So we do.
The next two and a half hours are a flurry of curious twists and turns, where even the most mundane activities – walking along a train platform, getting on a tram, strolling through a laneway – become giddy and intriguing, with a slightly altered double-reality playing out in the palm of your hand, with atmospheric music, instructions, dialogue and questions streaming into your ears. The nun (who, if you’re clued-in on your Shakespeare, is Isabella – embattled sister to the condemned Claudio) leads us down the street, to Melbourne’s town hall, and into the beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral. She leads us to a mirror on Swanston St, to a café called Duke’s; into Flinders Street Station, and into a photo booth. Each new location is becomes a sideways Shakespearean reference, or a thematic symbol. Soon we’re meeting another (perhaps, if you squint, the same) moustached man, who offers us $2 to see a Club X peep show if we so wish. Instead we “buy” two moustaches off him, which are then used to identify us at a tram stop: we’re handed an “intramission” snack of popcorn and sparkling water and given a note to read when we reach Victoria Markets.
The first half has been compelling if only as a means of exploring the interactive-theatre-in-public format; it’s certainly not a brand new medium, but it remains quite an unusual, rare and compelling one. At the same time, you don’t have to be wowed by a sense of “innovation” for the simple experience of being on a poetically guided journey through one’s city to feel potent. Somehow, it’s inherently stimulating. But how much has “Since I Suppose” offered so far that feels truly unique and thrilling, unexpected within its own semi-established format, or insightful in regards to the themes it laid out at the beginning (and via old mate Billy S)? So far, not an awful lot. The second half is where the experience ceases to be a mere novelty, and really gets interesting.
We open the envelope. Its directions lead us to a hotel; we enter. We get in the lift. Another man gets in the lift with us. As we ascend, out of the corner of my eye, I see him slip on a cap, aviator sunglasses, and a false moustache.
On the ninth floor he pulls out a deck of cards and runs us through some more narrative – in characteristically strange ways, like licking the cards and sticking them to windows, or talking to us in a single cubicle of the men’s toilets. Before long he sends us on our way, but as we wander down a corridor, an innocuous young woman holds a finger to her upper lip, upon it a phoney black moustache. She leads us to a rooftop patio where we lie in deckchairs with a hot water bottle (it’s a cool day) and watch as Isabella the nun (via our device screens) plants envelopes underneath us. We take them. Our headphones lead us into separate hotel rooms.
The hotel room looks like any other hotel room: except there’s a CD player on the bedside table, something a little anachronistic these days. Turns out the envelope contains a CD. I put it in the player and listen. A voice tells me to take off my shoes and get into the bed.
In perhaps the most contentious and challenging moment of the entire play, I suddenly realize there’s a man in the bed with me. I didn’t see him when I got in, but now I feel his presence, notice his discarded clothes on the hotel room floor. I look over and see his face. The CD tells me I can maintain eye contact, or look away. I do the former until it’s too weird, and then turn my face to the ceiling. As I lie still the voice has me imagine an ideal bedroom encounter, and – at least by implication – has me imagine kissing the man next to me. It’s a bizarre moment, charged with visceral immediacy. Of course, I’m not obliged to stay in this bed, but I want to follow the course of events “properly,” so I do, until I’m told to get up, and look out the window, and play the next track. When I turn around again, the man’s gone. I walk back out to the lift.
We’re lead down the lift and into a fire escape, not by Isabella the nun anymore, but by our on-screen “Angelo,” the stand-in Duke who’s trying to regulate everyone’s sex lives. He leads us into a carpark and then disappears. Suddenly a (real) black car appears, and the rear door swings open. A man in a fake black moustache, aviators and a cap beckons us, so we enter. I feel a flash of self-aware absurdity, realizing that I now trust anyone who’s wearing a fake black moustache, aviators and a cap. He takes our headphones and smartphones and drives through the city; he scans the “radio,” where Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ and news reports about harsh sex work regulations play out. A few minutes into the drive he gets a phone call, and we can hear him describing us, telling the voice on the other end of the line that he’s going to get us to do…something. He pulls into a cobblestone laneway – and so begins the most surreal, adrenalizing and decidedly dark portion of “Since I Suppose.”
We’re blindfolded – again – not by strips of fabric this time, but by sophisticated, ergonomic eye masks that truly thwart any attempt you might make at peeking. The engine stops. We hear him open the boot and move something heavy. We hear some violent commotion. As we sit motionless in the back seat, things start to feel ominous. Both side doors open. Unseen conspirators move our hands into a palms-up position, and suddenly an object which is unmistakably a human head falls into my lap. It’s warm, faintly sweaty, and insofar as it deceives the senses – pretty damn confronting, especially when a voice says “let me bag that for you” and hands me a plastic bag with a spookily similar object inside.
Still blindfolded, we each carry our bags of human head along the cobblestones and up a stone staircase. The breeze on my skin tells me I’m still outdoors. We’re lead to a ledge and told to drop the bags. They make a sickening loud, dull thud as they hit a metallic surface somewhere below. Moments later we’re bustled into a small, dark space that feels rather like a prison cell. After a long few seconds of claustrophobic uncertainty, we’re told we can remove our blindfolds, and head up a set of stairs.
Here ends “Since I Suppose” – almost. There’s a closing monologue and set of card tricks by another moustached man, and then – in a final, remarkable conclusion – we discover we’re at North Melbourne Town Hall, and a deconstructed wedding scene appears onstage. Bridal dresses are scattered around. As the lighting changes, Isabella (who previously only existed on our smartphones) appears opposite a man at the other end of the hall and removes her habit uncomfortably, standing naked in the silence. Floodlights flash on, obscuring the scene with shadow, and a Melbourne Festival employee rushes out with a torch demanding what we’re doing in the venue after hours (“there’s no performance scheduled here right now”). It’s a slightly hammy bit of meta-narrative, but as a marked counterpoint to the rather harrowing sequence we’ve just partaken in, it works well. We’re led into the foyer, and the fictive world ostensibly ends – but the boundaries between reality and fiction are far from in tact.
I’ve referenced Punchdrunk Theatre’s immersive work ‘Sleep No More’ a few times in this column; this is partly due to my limited breadth of experience in regards to immersive theatre, but I think it also points to how (relatively) unique and memorable these kinds of works are. The similarities between ‘Sleep No More’ (which took place in a New York warehouse converted into a fictional Hotel) and ‘Since I Suppose’ are readily apparent: both are experiential, variable, interactive, expansive and extremely loose adaptations of Shakespeare works (‘Sleep No More’ riffed on Macbeth). The differences though are perhaps more interesting; where Punchdrunk opted to create a self-contained and extremely cohesive world within a massive single venue, ‘Since I Suppose’ takes an entire existing city as its stage, appropriating countless venues for its own symbolic or aesthetic purposes. In some ways, the latter is more conceptually interesting, and certainly allows for more unexpected variables: how will the public respond while you engage with the work? What if you miss the tram; what if crowds get in your way; what if someone interrupts you? (All these things happened). On the other hand, it’s also far less sensorially convincing; 100 elaborately decorated rooms functioning as sets helps you sink into a thematic and theatrical world far more readily than a set of town hall steps representing a duke’s headquarters, or a 7-11 (which was indeed the setting for one scene here). Perhaps the comparison is unfair or unnecessary; Punchdrunk’s budget is (presumably) immensely greater, and ‘Since I Suppose’ uses its limitations to its advantage, forging remarkable experiences out of locations as banal as the Mercure Hotel or Train Platform 7. If I have one reservation, it’s with the integration of Shakespeare’s play; whereas with ‘Sleep No More’ Macbeth was a non-essential reference point that added intriguing depth for the Shakespeare-savvy, ‘Since I Suppose’ aims to make ‘Measure for Measure’ a narrative foundation. And yet, the narrative elaboration is often rushed, prosaic, awkwardly separate from the action, and dumbed-down – to the point where it feels like both the intended essence of the work and simultaneously an afterthought. Could they have done without Shakespeare entirely? Quite possibly; it’s tempting for one’s internal cynic to view the adaptation aspect as a sort of conceptual crutch, a reliable fallback; Shakespeare tends to get attention, one way or another. Luckily this concern was never serious enough to upset my enjoyment of the work. Ultimately ‘Since I Suppose’ excels as an experiential journey, one which challenges you emotionally and – to some extent – physically; pushing the envelope, shaking you from your comfort zone, disrupting and illuminating the mundane. This is, for me, one of the most vital functions of art, and ‘Since I Suppose’ is a stellar example. Not only does it push you on a personal level: this “play” pushes the very definition of theatre, in which – to quote the wrong play, probably not for the first time – all the world’s a stage. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and one step at a time like this have forged something truly remarkable and what it lacks for perfection, it makes up for in its exhilarating vision and ambition.