I’ve gone to some lengths to keep these reviews flowing on a daily basis and yesterday proved a challenge that was yet again different but in the good way that theatre has to surprise and delight. The immersive piece The White Plague has actually been online for a while now but, somehow, I had contrived to miss it thus far. That’s a pity because I’d have liked a bit more time to spread the word about what is a novel and quite chilling piece of at home theatre. But it is what it is, so with apologies to all concerned that this hasn’t arrived earlier to help with promotion, here goes.
The show is based on an earlier live immersive event which production company Ferodo Bridges (took me a while to figure out what that referred to) has re-created in the light of the subject matter turning out to be stunningly topical.
An unexpected pandemic has suddenly spread across the land causing a white blindness to descend on parts of the population. It seems that it can be spread simply by an infected person looking at someone else and in a panic the government has started to quarantine the victims into centres where they can do no harm.
Given that yesterday was also the day that the real government started herding travellers into forced accommodation, this piece couldn’t really be more topical if it tried. Let’s hope that there the similarities end there because in the play the premises (possibly a decommissioned hospital) turn out to be rather more spartan than the average airport hotel and soon become overcrowded with the increasing number of those affected. Still at least the inmates are not expected to pay £1,750 for the privilege.
Over time conditions worsen, hygiene concerns are ignored, factions form and infighting starts to occur, especially as regards the paltry supplies of food. This ultimately leads to physical and sexual violence and acts of appalling cruelty as their society in miniature falls apart. There is just one person who can help them break free of the cycle of self-destruction, but she is harbouring a dark secret which prevents her from acting openly.
The scenario would be a frightening enough prospect at any time but particularly scary in the current climate and writer/director Alexander Raptotasios and his well-cast team of five actors exploit the conceit for all its worth. They emerge with a dystopian thriller that uses the aural dimension brilliantly to heighten the experience. Ross Flight’s thrilling sound design is channelled through a binaural configuration meaning that wearing headphones is essential and for complete immersion most of the piece should be listened to with eyes firmly closed or staring at a totally blank screen.
The original show issued participants with whited out goggles; I used a sleep mask. It’s unexpectedly intense depriving yourself of a key sense and really plays into the whole tension of the play as it unfolds. Imagination works overtime and fills in the missing data as the actors come and go in the virtual space and often seem to be whispering conspiratorially right next to your head. Sensibly in this version there is a ten minute sequence at the start where we are visually introduced to the five main characters, although they do talk about themselves in the third person, so we can hold a picture of them in our heads as we engage with the rest of the play.
I won’t give the game away by revealing whether the quintet survive but if you pay attention carefully enough at the start you will know the answer. Suffice to say that I was pleased to note that theatre had a major part to play in the eventual outcome. The White Plague is a thoroughly disturbing piece of work which unsettles on both a narrative and an experiential level. It asks some probing questions about our attitudes towards others in a time of crisis and suggests that the civilised manner in which we normally conduct ourselves may be nothing more than tissue thin. It also amply demonstrates the dangers of a rash government making ill considered decisions about freedoms – please God we never come to it…. unless we already have.