There is, at the heart of theatre, a game of hide and seek. Novels can be stories taken as they are, at face value: stories for stories sake. In theatre, stories function as carriers. They are disguises that need peeling off or layers of wrapping paper around a prize. A great deal of an audience’s enjoyment – at least for me – is in the process of decoding; the attempt, in real time, to see what’s going on beneath the surface, to discern meaning beneath the metaphor.
Blast Theory’s A Machine to See With and nonzeroone’s The Time Out tell very different stories. In fact, both involve us in very different stories. The first pitches us on course to rob a bank, the second as a water polo team before a major final. Actually, beneath the surface, both have the same aim. That is, both seek to connect us with those around us. While nonzeroone’s is the more immediately affecting, Blast Theory’s is the more satisfying precisely because of its mastery of disguise.
The Time Out seeks to forge a team mentality in a group of strangers. Sat on benches in an approximated changing room, wearing adapted swimming caps with headphones which feed us instructions, we are taken through a series of team-building, motivational exercises. In gradually pumping us up and breaking down our inhibitions, nonzeroone undoubtedly succeed and, in doing so, demonstrate the ease of manipulation. At the end, we charge towards the non-existent pool, psyched up and raring to go, only to re-enter the real world with nowhere to place that energy. Outside, we stand rudderless, almost awaiting further instruction or leadership and our passivity becomes abundantly clear.
A measure of The Time Out’s success is that, since taking part, I have had social encounters with two of my teammates, formerly strangers, outside of the space. It’s undeniably involving, cleverly stirring up a passion you didn’t think possible, but its direct approach leaves little to linger.
By contrast, Blast Theory ambush you with an unseen crux. What seems one experience – a path towards a bank robbery – turns out to have been another entirely. It pivots around a moment spent in a car with a stranger that, at the time, seems part of a wider narrative, only proving central after the event.
A Machine to See With pitches you as the protagonist in a heist movie of your own. A recorded voice at the end of the telephone instructs you through the city. It takes you into public promenades, multi-story car parks and toilet cubicles, stoking your adrenaline as it leads you towards a high street bank that you’re supposedly about to rob. ‘How far will it actually go?’ you think, ‘How much will it ask of me?’ After all, the voice is keen to stress that your in-flight actions are real and incur responsibility. It mentions the police. Will I have to deal with the police?
As preparation for a heist, the piece works by pulling you along, preying on the audience member’s tendency to follow a piece in good faith. You’re never sure quite how close to the cashier it will take you or at what point you might have to abandon the plan.
Nevertheless, Blast Theory’s decision to frame this as a movie in which the individual audience member is the protagonist is equally important, if not – by the end – more so. The recorded voice asks you to imagine teams of cameras swirling around you. Your walk changes: you notice that you’ve started to act slick, a pale imitation of Ocean’s 11 or Reservoir Dogs. This, after all, is where most of us cultivate an idea of the etiquette for such acts, a fact that Blast Theory’s chosen locations – all rather Grand Theft Auto, defined by urban anonymity – plays on smartly.
Crucially, the imagined cameras turn your focus entirely on oneself. You see yourself in the third person, conscious of acting rather than simply doing unthinkingly. Other people, passers-by, become extras on your movie set. Your co-conspirator becomes your supporting-lead. You sit together for almost ten minutes, almost entirely in silence, before heading directly towards the bank.
It’s only at the end that these ten minutes come into real focus. (I had fallen into the trap of getting a bit lost and, with an unexpected delay, may have missed the full impact of an ending that might have re-connected you and your partner.) The realisation is that, in their version, you were a mere bit-part player; that, in your absolute introspection, you barely took notice of the person sat next to you, even though you trusted them implicitly and unquestioningly at the time. What was it David Foster Wallace once said? ‘This is water, this is water.’
How curious that the thought should come at the end of a bank heist rather than just before a water polo final?