The audience (all 32 of us) is led through a bizarre airport check-in scenario and asked to leave our belongings behind. Thankfully, the critics are allowed to hold onto their notepads, though one feels a bit of a wally, clutching pen and pad whilst being wheeled on a wooden trolley through pitch darkness. This is not the kind of darkness one normally encounters in the theatre, with exit lights gleaming and phones glowing. Instead, this is real, I-can’t-see-the-back-of-my-hand, blackness. It is this darkness which forms the canvass for Living Structures’ theatrical ghost-train, Cart Macabre, an abstract journey through a purgatorial wasteland, which occasionally slips into limbo but consistently unsettles.
Living Structures, led by artistic director Klaus Kruse, wisely decided to start small and expand the visuals and sensual shocks gradually, as the audience settles into the experience. This is a company that understands the audience psychology behind immersive theatre, and that it is best to initially embrace, rather than isolate its spectators by scaring the life out of them. So, when we are led from our trolleys into a small carriage, which will be our auditorium for this show, it is a gentle hand that directs us. These hands carefully point out the sharp edges of the carriage and, though one can’t see a thing, the heart settles slightly. Living Structures recognise that for us to really experience this show we must lose ourselves in it – and we will only do this if we trust our guides.
So, having been delicately placed in our cadaver carriages, in which four people nestle incredibly closely together, the darkness snaps suddenly into light. A shutter opens up to reveal submarine-style portholes, down which something red and bloody drips. It is elegant and beautiful, a mesmerising dance performed by something normally frightening and sinister. Oil drops in afterwards and the small comfort we took from the glimmering red is slowly snuffed out.
Blackness descends again and titters ripple around the carriage. It is extraordinary how loud and communicative an audience can be in a less conventional show like this. A few roads down, at the Old Vic itself, it’s unlikely you’ll even make eye contact with your fellow theatre-goers. In the tunnels, strangers hugged, chatted and confided, as if attending a huge grown-up sleepover. Faced with the unknown, the audience starts to get to know each other instead.
Perhaps it is this comradeship that gradually chips away at the tension in this production. Initially, led alone on a rickety cart, isolated and blind, one is understandably tense. Yet, as soon as the mini-audience in the carriage begins to interact, it becomes harder for the show to ensnare us. Perhaps this is why some of the more low-key and contained aspects in this show do not work quite so well; they are not emphatic enough to jolt the audience out of its newfound comfort zone. A puppet moth, controlled by hands we can see but a face we cannot, flutters restlessly around a candle. Around and around it goes, with the audience restless for the inevitable collision. Finally, the moth reaches the flame and bursts into flames. Satisfaction rather than fear seeps through the carriage.
The canvas expands again. The slates ahead of us are lifted to reveal a huge screen, on which a heart is being ripped apart. But god, does it put up a good fight. Everyone talks of the heart as our strongest muscle, but here is the proof and it’s almost enough to make one proud. Despite the stubborn grappling from the hand, the relentless twisting and turning, the heart refuses to submit. Below the screen, a blood red pool glistens in the half light. It is a clever and complicated image, suggesting the clawing approach of death and life’s hardy, instinctive resistance to its reach.
At one point, all eight carriages are joined up and the curtains that once separated us are lifted. We are treated to a surrounding puppet show, where silhouettes appear of rats, a foetus, eagles and anything vaguely associated with death. The audience, now facing each other and emboldened by a new safely in numbers, chatter amongst themselves. The rather low-key visuals do not overcome the shift in ambience and the tension, again, starts to slide away.
Yet there is a finale that is enough to frighten or at least captivate the bravest of spectators. The eight carts are separated again and the sides opened up. Suddenly, the cavernous darkness of the Old Vic Tunnels is fully mobilised. Huge extractor fans swoosh through the air, marking out endless time and space. Haunting Irish folk music, a constant feature in this show, tinkles in our ears about life, death and somewhere in between. As the carriages continue to rotate a huge ladder, made out of massive bones, swings into view. It looks the mutated backbone of a long-dead giant. A naked man clambers up and down this hanging, hefty skeleton. It is an extraordinary image and a highlight of this patchy but impressive show, in which life and death struggle to survive in the same space.