The War Inside, by Albany associate artist Camille Dawson, has to be seen (or rather, experienced) to be believed.
In the style of good immersive theatre, we the audience are placed at the heart of the show. Welcomed by performers Dawson and Sophie Taylor into the Albany’s main space that’s been decked out with an adventure playground of huge inflatable organs and bone marrow, having been issued with white hairnets and bar-coded white tabards, we’re reminded that we are (what else?) new white blood cells, called up into life to join the war on germs in the body of our host Marnie. But something’s wrong. A white blood cell sergeant of some kind (Dawson) informs us that there are foreign cells of some kind making incursions under our watch. All the while, we’re graced with visions through the eyes of Marnie herself, who’s starting to feel, well, a bit ill. It’s up to us to find out what’s going on and win the war inside Marnie’s body — but do we really know what we’re fighting?
The first word I’d use to describe The War Inside is unsettling. This show lets you use a few oft-bandied metaphors quite literally, the first being got under my skin: a nagging feeling that this is all a bit silly and slightly pat is swiftly replaced by a slowly burning discomfort and dread, as Marnie’s worsening condition makes her life unravel. It encourages audiences to see life, quite literally, through the eyes of a teenage girl hopelessly at sea with an illness she doesn’t understand. Somehow, the contrast between mad immersive space and naturalistic first-person footage made me instantly sympathetic to Marnie’s plight – a fraught relationship with a best friend carried a particular sting. The craft of the video sections by Molly Pendlebury is considerable.
As audience members, we experience possibly the most white-and-neon version of the detective noir trope ever: the searchers find that the object of their enquiry is, in fact, themselves. Not only that, but the show deploys a political metaphor that’s hard to see coming – we white blood cells are essentially radicalised into believing in the threat of a foreign invader who doesn’t exist. (I couldn’t help wondering if a more game-based form of immersive show might have carried Dawson’s message better – if, perhaps, we had been sent on different tasks to vital organs and reported back to a ‘war room’ of some kind, rather than being entirely dependent on following Taylor. But this version would require more performers amongst other resources, and times are hard.)
The beauty of theatre lies in the fact that a show can make you believe in anything if the performers believe in it enough. The War Inside’s success is down to Dawson’s conviction in her own material, and Taylor’s total commitment to it alongside her. The free-flowing configuration leads to some quite poignant moments of intimacy between performer and audience and Taylor’s vulnerability as a white blood cell caught in up the white-blood-cell equivalent of a race riot provides a human heart (sorry, human blood cells) to what could be a rather scattershot blend of material.
Christina Ottonello’s set and Paul Freeman’s soundscape have worked overtime to realise Dawson’s vision of our insides, the latter creating subtle urgency and movement where needed (though I could have done without some of the ‘crowd’ sound effects in certain places). Stacey O’Shea’s lighting, combined with use of haze, draws our attention to where it needs to be.
The show sets out to explore and give a voice to invisible conditions – and in that it certainly succeeds. Being as idiosyncratic and experiential as it is, it’s rather difficult to describe how successfully it works. Which probably means it should be experienced, by as many audiences as possible.