10 Experimental Theatre Pieces That Blew My Mind

In a rare non-music post, I’d like to set down a few brief recollections of experimental theatre pieces and live installations that have affected me in one way or another. I’ve long been fascinated by theatre that extends the boundaries of theatre and mixes in elements of performance, music and site-specific installations. Much of this stuff also situates the audience member as an active participant rather than as a mere viewer.

Over the years I’ve been lucky to witness several such events, all of which I now feel privileged to have attended. My memories of them have faded over time, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write this post. Some of them are fairly well documented on YouTube, websites and suchlike, while for others there hardly seems to be any record at all of their ever having taken place – except that I remember every one of them. These were unique and unrepeatable events that now exist for me in a netherworld of half-forgotten traces, images and memories.

1. Impact Theatre Co-operative, A Place in Europe (Salisbury, 1983)

This and The Carrier Frequency are the only two events listed here which actually took place in a conventional theatre setting, with the audience sitting in rows of seats. But A Place in Europe at Salisbury Arts Centre was a game-changing experience for me at the time, although I can remember little about it now save for its thrillingly powerful, haunting imagery and music and the incantatory refrain of “let me lay my head upon your breast” with which the piece drew to a close. Oh, to see a video of this show.

2. Impact Theatre Co-operative, The Carrier Frequency (Salisbury, 1984)

A year after A Place in Europe, Impact Theatre Co-operative returned to Salisbury with a daring, even more formally experimental project, The Carrier Frequency. Co-written with novelist Russell Hoban (whose post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker I can’t recommend too highly), the piece consisted, if I remember rightly, of a large, multi-level structure around which copious quantities of water were transported throughout the performance, while cast members careered about the stage in Beckettian, heavily restricted movements.

3. Enrique Vargas, Oraculos (London, 1997)

This was a truly incredible experience. Situated in some kind of warehouse near Kings Cross, it was a kind of maze through which audience members walked one at a time, starting in a wardrobe filled with clothes which you had to push your way through (shades of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). From then on, you had one-to-one encounters with a succession of characters, some scary, some enticing (one girl invited me to dance with her, another challenged me to an arm-wrestling contest). Tarot cards were involved, and dough which you had to make and eventually bake into bread, which you ate at the end.

4. NVA, The Secret Sign (Finnich Glen, 1998)

In 1998 I was working in Glasgow, and arranged a crafty, not entirely necessary extension to my visit in order to take in this brilliant piece of site-specific theatre. My interest in NVA had its roots in my admiration for the early industrial collective Test Department. By the time I caught up with TD in the early 1990s, they were no longer doing the large-scale site-specific events for which they had become legendary in the 1980s. Instead I saw them twice in their final techno phase, at Subterania in Ladbroke Grove and then again at the Zap in Brighton. Both events were, in truth, somewhat underwhelming (although I wish I still had the excellent Test Department T-shirt I bought at Subterania). I kept an eye, though, on the career of Angus Farquhar (who, rightly or wrongly, I always thought of as the main creative force behind Test Department) and jumped at the chance to see something of his next project, NVA, for myself.

The Secret Sign began as a night-time ride out of Glasgow, in a bus with blacked-out windows. On arrival at the meeting point, you were kitted out in wading boots and a hard hat. Guided by NVA assistants, you then went on an arduous, beautifully lit walk through river and rock, with live birds of prey in close proximity and a stunning vision at the end, with a lonely figure glimpsed in the distance. Farquhar has recently started working again with a new version of Test Department, but it’s hard to see him topping this for sheer impact and emotional resonance (see also no.10 below).

5. La Fura dels Baus, Manes (London, 1998)

This Catalan theatre group mounted a fiercely direct, involving and uncompromising piece of theatre at Three Mills Island Studios in east London. With the action taking place on a single floor, the audience was able to follow the chaotic scenes as they unfolded. I remember some spectacular machines, and having to take evasive action to avoid being hit by a dead chicken, but on the whole I was less entranced by this than I was by…

6. De La Guarda, Periodo Villa Villa (London, 1999)

This lot were Argentinian, and their show at the Roundhouse was simply breathtaking. At the start, the audience were herded standing into a closed space with nothing but a vast sheet of paper stretched above them. Shapes and shadows gradually came to life, and then, in a stunning coup de théâtre, a man in a harness came down through the paper, plucked a girl (who I really hope was a plant) out of the audience and hoisted her up into the heavens. What followed was a phantasmagoric blend of music, theatre, circus and performance, played out in the air and on the walls, with the guys in business suits and the girls in rather fetching business non-suits.

7. Deborah Warner, The Tower Project (London, 1999)

I’m still kicking myself for missing Deborah Warner’s St Pancras Project (1995), which apparently allowed audience members to walk one at a time around the then dusty, unrestored grandeur of the Midland Grand Hotel and encounter strange and frightening things there. As a consolation prize I was at least able to check out Warner’s subsequent Tower Project, which took place on a floor of abandoned government offices in the Euston Tower in London. As one who has seen the interior of more than a few airless and depressing government offices in his time, the setting struck a powerful chord with me. The angels who could be seen standing around and mutely watching the city from high above, in an echo of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, were somewhat less familiar.

8. Gregor Schneider, Die Familie Schneider (London, 2004)

Probably the most disturbing of all the pieces on this list, Die Familie Schneider was a live installation mounted in two neighbouring and identical terraced houses in east London. You were given the keys to the first house and entered it alone. As you explored the house, you were confronted by a series of real and increasingly unpleasant encounters – a woman endlessly washing the dishes, a naked man masturbating behind a shower curtain, a boy sitting mutely on the floor of his bedroom with a paper bag over his head. Down in the basement, there were further nasty hints of punishment and incarceration. The house itself was terrifyingly normal, with the banality of its standard furniture and appliances accentuating the horror in between. After 20 minutes you left the house with relief and entered the house next door, where the whole nightmarish experience was repeated.

9. Frantic Assembly, Dirty Wonderland (Brighton, 2005)

Dirty Wonderland was a haunting masterpiece of site-specific theatre. Taking place in the faded Art Deco glamour of the Grand Ocean Hotel in Saltdean, the piece invited audience members to wander from room to room and be faced with a series of vivid and human encounters. The finale in the ballroom, with ghostly figures from the past dancing to the music of Goldfrapp, was breathtaking.

10. NVA, The Storr (Isle of Skye, 2005)

Seven years after the wonders of The Secret Sign (see no.4 above), I caught up with Angus Farquhar and NVA for an even more ambitious intervention. This time another long and arduous night-time walk took us through The Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye, a dramatic natural land formation that was compellingly illuminated and soundtracked with music and Gaelic poetry. I did the walk on two successive nights. On the first night, bad weather meant that only about half of the walk could be achieved, with the finale cruelly denied to us. Only on the second night was I able to experience the full beauty of the living and breathing environment that Farquhar and his team had created.