The only thing that is genuinely immersive about Theatre of Gulags is the Kafkaesque monotony of standing with a group of strangers waiting for something to happen, and not even knowing if it will.
In defence of the creative team “immersive” is an ambiguous word. Is not all theatre somewhat immersive in virtue of it being live? But Theatre of Gulags can’t really even claim that. It consists mostly recoded monologues projected onto dangling sheets and a couple of installations, desks and various props, to illuminate the lives of a handful of real-life artists who were imprisoned by the oppressive Soviet regime. Each installation is a talking heads style look at their lives before and after their incarceration. The only thing akin to theatre comes at the tail end of the forty minutes where three performers emerge to enact an excerpt of King Lear whilst interrupted by sporadic gun fire from beyond the walls.
The space evokes perfectly what one thinks a gulag may look, brick lined walls with corrugated iron wrapped across the walls like a plaster. The first thing you notice as you enter the space is the damp that tries to crawl down your throat. But that, and the standing in the crowd, are about it in terms of immersion.
Regardless of whether it is theatre or an exhibition or a theatrical exhibition, it is severely hampered both by what’s on paper and its execution. Broad brush strikes paint caricatures rather than what feel like authentic portraits of the real-life figures. There is not enough time to get to know them, they are brief documentary snapshots rather than deep dives into their emotional lives, something that feels uncomfortable when certain ideas require more depth, and end up feeling frivolously shoehorned in for the sake of dramatic bite.
But its problems are functional too. The audience crowd around the projections squinting to read tiny print subtitles in the darkness. I didn’t see half of it in virtue of being pushed to the back of the crowd. I probably wouldn’t survive long in Siberia.
It’s unclear what the anaemic live sections want to achieve: Is it a tribute to real the artists who really did stage Lear in a Gulag? Is It supposed to be a realistic? If so, then why does one of the performers playing a Ukrainian-Jewish woman have an agonizingly jarring airy posh London accent? In any case they seemed drunk on their sense of portentousness, gazing out at the audience as if to say: yeah, we know this is deep. They haven’t done the creative heavy lifting to earn the right to do so.
If you really want an immersive gulag experience, pick up some books by Solzhenitsyn and let your imagination do the work.
VAULT Festival 2023 runs Tuesday 24th January to Sunday 19th March, full listings and ticket information can be found here.