MENIER CHOCOLATE FACTORY'S INVISIBLE MAN AS REMEDIATIZED THEATRE IN A CRISIS OF IDENTITY
"The formulation of audience taste by television necessarily rebounds on the future audience for theatre" ~ Patrice Pavice 1992
For years live performance and recorded media have been at odds: within the competitive cultural economy and within the broader cultural understanding of temporal art forms (Auslander, 1999). As television and cinema have become the cultural norm, this has led to a significant crisis of identity for live theatre: what is it that makes a live event ontologically distinct from one that is not live and how can theatre adapt to this change in cultural understanding to keep its relevancy?
In light of dwindling sales, many theatres and companies today, particularly in London, have become increasingly aware of these difficulties. As Mark Lawson bemoans, “recent British theatre has suggested not so much a co-existence between stage and screen as the old red velvet theatre curtains being flapped in surrender” (2003; qtd in Giesekam, 2007).
Menier's production of Invisible Man, when read as a remediatized performance existing in a cultural landscape of cinematic norms, demonstrates how even shows that attempt to adapt to their new-media native audience can fail to become relevant when they are too aware that they are not cinema.
Menier, aware that they are competing for cinema dollars, markets their shows as an evening, complete with dinner beforehand at their in-house restaurant. The Invisible Man itself, in an appeal to movie-going spectators, was marketed as having “jaw-dropping special effects and ingenious illusions” (Menier's website, 2011). While the effects and illusions of Paul Kieve were dazzling and spectacular, they felt all too familiar to the film-native audience. Indeed this may be because Kieve himself is a special effects artist for the screen, with credits including the celebrated Harry Potter series.
The effects were placed centre stage during the performance, as well as in its ads, with critic Michael Billington concluding that the show “belongs ... to the unseen Kieve” (Guardian, 25 Nov 2010). This strong choice to bring in an illusionist from the film world and the show's desire to place the spectacle at the centre of their performance mark just two ways in which the show attempted to be cinematic.
While trying to be cinematic, however, the show, paradoxically, also attempted to separate itself from cinema and embrace its liveness. In his book on the subject,
Philip Auslander outlines two features of live performance that people assume distinguishes them from recorded media: spontaneity and communion with the audience. While the truth of these points is certainly arguable, it is unassailable that Menier's Invisible Man went to extraordinary lengths to hit them home.
Audience interaction not only started and ended the show, it wasn't even confined to its raucous actors-in-the-audience bit. With a master of ceremonies, a narrator, and actors flirting with the audience the show never seemed to forget we were there, nor (perhaps more importantly) to let us forget that they knew that we were there.
Such a reliance on audience interaction, and the underlying need to prove the worth of its liveness that it represented, leads to an odd paradox though: in attempting to separate itself from passive media by embracing audience interaction, the production risks alienating an audience that has become unused to and uncomfortable with such interaction from years of consuming passive media.
In order to make the audience comfortable, such interaction must be limited to established social conventions and roles that the audience is familiar with. The reliance on call-and-response gimmicks by the MC, the passivity of jokes directed at the audience, and the music-hall framing served to keep the show's expectations of the audience both minimal and known. The show began with a Master of Ceremonies informing the audience that they were a 1904 music-hall audience. An underlit company of clowns proceeded to sing to that effect before being interrupted by the vagabond-turned-narrator Thomas Marvel. In doing so, the performance established a clear expectation of the audience's involvement in the production, by placing them within a known context.
This context, and the pretence of the music-hall frame, expressed an odd mix of nostalgia and disdain for an era when theatre was a predominant form, existing on its own. The period costumes, floor lighting, and music-hall proscenium and curtains were all accurate enough to express a genuine desire to evoke a past where theatre was a native medium. Yet simultaneously the continuum of meta-theatrical gags, satirically over-the-top design elements (spooky music, big orchestral hits) and exaggerated stage conventions expressed at best a desire to distance the production from the very language of theatre itself.
This framing not only made the audience/performance relationship explicit, but it also served to distance the audience as people from the audience-role that the performance asked them to assume. Indeed, when the actors came out into the house near the end of the production, it was framed as the town meeting in the production's production of The Invisible Man. This two-fold separation between the audience-as-people and the audience-as-character protected the audience from being frightened by this level of interaction and successfully solved the aforementioned paradox.
But something very important is lost in such a solution. An audience so far removed from the production cannot relate to it. Even its credibility as a story is put in jeopardy if the framing device outside the play becomes more compelling than the play within the play. Unfortunately for Menier, in its eagerness to crack meta-theatrical jokes (actors throwing snow in the air upon entering, the curtain getting stuck on the same character multiple times, the actors turning around to make crowd noises, etc) it undercut its own credibility as a story-telling device, and lost its ability to tell the story within its own frame.
All these decisions, from jokes about theatre, to the music-hall frame, to near-continuous audience interaction and even the use of stunning special effects, reflected a production that was aware of its existence as a live production in a world dominated by mass media. In staging a play with this in mind, Menier's Chocolate Factory has created a performance that ceased altogether to be about the story they were supposedly trying to tell and have instead created a reflection on their own existence as not-cinema.