To mob or not to mob: Immersive theatre isn’t for everyone – & that’s okay

In Features, London theatre, Opinion, Plays, Reviews by Emily GarsideLeave a Comment

Ok, wrong play, but the point still stands. In one of several tweets about Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre – all of which were positive, none of which were an in-depth review, given they were Tweets – I made a comment about the use of the mob. My comment about the mob itself was positive – and something I planned to expand on in this, my review. It created a great atmosphere, and as I’ll expand on, I think added much to the story.

The ‘You could not pay me to be down there’ was an expression of my personal preference – and aversion to such things. I said that, because I’m not fond of crowds and I’m even less fond of loud noises. Knowing both things played into the staging beforehand, I made a decision not to buy tickets for there. So far so sensible? After the event, observing that confirmed I would not have enjoyed it, and I made a comment to that end… while also praising that kind of staging for making it a great theatrical experience.

It’s not news that Twitter sometimes fails to grasp nuance. And many people replied to tell me I was ‘wrong’ and the mob was indeed the best/only way to experience this play. Luckily for me, 99% of these Tweeters were reasonable people who then, when we engaged in discussion, saw fully my point that yes, that experience was awesome no doubt, and it added to the production, which was awesome, but it was also not for me!

What the discussion led me to conclude was that in fact, the best thing about this production was that it offered you a choice. A means to experience this semi-immersive production, even if being ‘immersed’ is not your thing. Staging the piece ‘in the round’ with the stage/mob in the centre in the intimate setting of the Bridge Theatre allowed for still feeling ‘part’ of the action, and the effect of the action, without having to be in it. And I think we need to be honest that immersive theatre, or certain styles of theatre, aren’t for everyone.

On the day I saw it, I’d been in London for 3 days in freezing cold and rain, I’d spent 8 hours locked in the Young Vic for The Inheritance, I’d slept on a Travelodge bed. I was with my 72-year-old Mother who had endured the same. Neither of us were in the mood for 2 hours of standing and being shoved about. However, from our perch at the back of the Gallery we loved watched the people be part of the mob, the effect it had on storytelling, and by default, the play. Now I’m sure the people in the mob had a very different experience to myself. But to take one twitter argument thrown at me, and to flip it: is my experience watching from the gallery any less valid? I got to observe the actors fully, without worrying I was going to bash into someone, be bashed into or in this specific case fall over from exhaustion. I got to watch the whole ‘Picture’ at once, observing stage hands coming and going, observing the observers in the Mob. My experience was probably less ‘visceral’ than in the Mob, but I’d argue in being able to observe how that worked in staging, no less interesting a theatrical experience. Also, I still experienced the production, I was still to borrow from a musical over the river ‘In the room where it happened’. Just because my experience was different, doesn’t mean I didn’t experience it.
And I really do believe the ‘Mob’ staging adds something to the production. And perhaps as a professional nerd, and sometime scholar the observing of that was far more interesting to me. Watching how an audience behaves, observing how the audience as part of the production affects other people’s reaction is endlessly fascinating. But also, I just simply enjoyed the atmosphere it created. And it’s possible to do that, and not wish to be part of it. It’s also a valid, interesting take on the text itself. The baying crowds being physically present, in terms of a witnessing audience, rather than slightly bored ensemble. That’s a brilliant idea! The fact that audience members are engaged physically in the production, means they likely engage more emotionally, intellectually. Again- brilliant! The fact that the Mob creates this theatrical energy around a play that- let’s be honest can sometimes flag a bit in parts- makes this one of the best productions of Caesar I’ve seen. I love the mob, I love that Nick Hytner came up with both a venue and a staging that can do this to the play…I just don’t personally want to be a part of it. People who love immersive theatre are sometimes a little too evangelical about it, and a little blind to those who don’t. I appreciate that it is a wonderful, possibly life changing experience to have a wonderful immersive experience. But perhaps for those who do, consider those extremes of emotion in reverse. What I and many others experience in the sector of ‘immersive’ theatre isn’t simply ‘mild dislike’ it’s often a scale of extreme discomfort to genuine fear. I can “do” Punchdrunk shows now because they have a set of “rules” that I feel comfortable with and a style I likewise am familiar with and can enjoy. The first time I saw one of their shows I very nearly didn’t go in and spent the first 15 minutes or so genuinely frightened. The Bridge production also has gained some criticism online for the manner in which it treats those in the Mob- comments about the rough handling of audience members, the way in which people are physically moved about- I can’t attest to any of that, but I do know it wouldn’t make me have a ‘fantastic’ experience, quite the opposite.  But the great thing about The Bridge’s choice of staging is that it gives the option. Immersive productions (fully or otherwise) are not the most inclusive of theatrical experiences. But by making this a production where audiences can ‘feel’ or ‘experience’ the benefit of the immersive aspect without having to take part.
Finally, though, in closing a note about how we talk about theatre. And of course, the Twitter 1%. My saying that ‘this style of audience is not for me’ does not in any way diminish the experience of people who do love it. I was told I was not allowed to ‘dismiss’ the immersive side of it having not experienced it. I’m not dismissing it, I’m (repeatedly) saying I think it was an integral and interesting part of the production. But I do not want to be a part of it. My opinion that I would not want that theatrical experience does not diminish or dismiss that experience for others. Had I hated the play or production itself, my opinion does not affect or change that of someone who felt the opposite. But equally while I should not (and was not) telling people their experience was ‘wrong’, I shouldn’t be taken to task for expressing my own opinion.
I’m also not claiming anything about an experience I did not have. Only an experience I did not wish to have. To mob or immerse or indeed to be interacted with at all by the actors is not for everyone. With all of these I can enjoy a production which includes these elements, I can appreciate what it brings to it. But personally, I like my actors on their own side of the fence.

Emily Garside
Emily Garside is an academic and theatre writer. Following a PhD in depictions of HIV/AIDS in theatre, she decided to move on from academic writing to take her writing about theatre to a wider audience. By day a research advisor and by night theatre writer, playwright and lover of all things theatre. Emily blogs at thenerdytheatre.blogspot.co.uk and tweets at @EmiGarside.
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Emily Garside
Emily Garside is an academic and theatre writer. Following a PhD in depictions of HIV/AIDS in theatre, she decided to move on from academic writing to take her writing about theatre to a wider audience. By day a research advisor and by night theatre writer, playwright and lover of all things theatre. Emily blogs at thenerdytheatre.blogspot.co.uk and tweets at @EmiGarside.