Shooting the White Eagle

Thu 31st July – Sun 24th August 2014

reviews

Ciaran Stordy

at 09:00 on 14th Aug 2014

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Scott Smith and Glenn Collier beckon from the murky depths of an imaginary gulag, inviting one and all to immerse themselves in a special brand of theatre. They want to shoot a movie and call it The White Eagle, but for their plan to be fulfilled they need the help of audience members who they haul up out of the house to play parts in a half-verbatim tale of prisoners trying to break out of a Russian labour camp.

This story is invented but supplemented by true historical accounts to deliver an experience that is both compelling and entertaining, though confused in pitch. It is like an unfamiliar insect that, landing suddenly on your sleeve, makes you flinch but lingers afterwards in your mind as you recall its peculiar features.

The storyline buzzes from snowy Russian street to appalling prison camp, portraying different kinds of evil characters associated with the political oppression of Gulag Russia such as insidious secret agents, merciless prison guards and cannibalistic inmates.

The Caves @ Just the Tonic, with its damp walls and gloomy nooks, provide an apt setting. The house’s surroundings give the impression of being underground, as if the very compilation of the film risks arrest by the authorities and so needs to be concealed. Yet the effect of such an environment is compromised by humour made inevitable by the show’s immersiveness. Pulling up audience members invariably prompts banter from their friends and creates an atmosphere of joviality utterly discordant with the harshness of imprisonment. A serious topic was infected by background chuckles. It wasn’t that performances as prisoners and guards lacked substance so much as that all tragedy on stage became discredited by the general atmosphere.

That said, there is an advantage to calling up spectators: they are able to observe with touch as well as sight. Constant breaks in character to guide audience participants – of whose number I was an ungainly part, playing the role of Prisoner 4 – and the odd jeer from the audience undermine the frightening drama inherent in a gulag setting. Up on stage I found myself better able to ponder the horrific details of verbatim accounts.

The show’s format is unique; a visit to see this show is worthwhile even if it is only to witness something new.

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Hannah Blythe

at 09:08 on 14th Aug 2014

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‘Shooting the White Eagle’ was an enjoyable piece of immersive drama. Glenn Collier and Scott Smith, of Pinhole Theatre, invited the audience to join them in recording the fictional film, ‘The White Eagle.’ The imaginary movie followed the activities of a Soviet gulag and audience members were invited to participate as actors and extras. Collier and Scott were able to entice their viewers into joyful compliance, and possessed the crowd-sensitivity to reassure any particularly stage-shy spectator that they would not be picked on.

Upon entering the venue, we were each handed an information sheet, giving background information about gulags, guards and prisoners. We instantly felt involved, and I got a little excited. After watching so many performers this week, I was suddenly keen for a go on the stage! Of course, I volunteered and was soon pretending to be a confused arrestee.

The success of ‘Shooting the White Eagle’ depended upon its audience’s readiness to get stuck in. This afternoon, Collier and Smith attracted a compliant crowd. They even had a bunch of strangers dancing together to no music. My willingness to bust a (terrible) move in front of some probably-talented-dancers is testament to the relaxed atmosphere Collier and Smith created. If, however, the pair were to face a less enthusiastic crowd, they might run into a few issues. But, such is the risk with immersive comedy, and it’s fair to say that the more you put into being an audience member, the more you’ll get out of the show.

While Collier and Smith were brilliant at immersing their audience, the show was not without fault. As the performance wore on, I became increasingly confused about where the humour was supposed to come from. Were we mocking the production of a serious film? Or was ‘The White Eagle’ itself supposed to be funny? Often, we were mocking the low-budget production of some serious subject matter. But then, at the end of the film, in a show of dark humour, two escapees absurdly ate ‘steak’ from a murdered companion’s rump.

The appeal of ‘Shooting the White Eagle’ was far from universal. The audience were generally student-age. Indeed, I overheard an older audience member whispering to her companion, ‘this is a young person thing.’ Nonetheless, the show pleased its specific demographic.

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