Operation Black Antler – Southbank (Secret Location), London

Writer: Neil Fleming

Director: Jem Wall

Reviewer: Mike Wells
There’s something quite sexy about being a spy. Or at least that’s what Hollywood would have us believe. It’s a world of martini cocktails and black ties, debonair double-agents and alluring femme fatales. They play a game to which the rules are universally known, and they do so willingly.

However, the reality is very different. Over the last few years, numerous reports have been written, which assess the impact undercover operatives have had on the lives of those they’ve followed (the most damning of which was the public enquiry lead by Lord Justice Pitchford, which is well worth a read).

For many years undercover operatives stole the identities of dead children, allowing them to lead a convincing double-life, with the official documentation to support it. Their job was to get intimate with the workings of various political groups and learn all they could about them. Unfortunately, that’s not where the intimacy stopped. Many of these agents pursued relationships with those they were following, some got married, some even had children. They lived these lives for as long as their superiors deemed necessary, and when the leads dried up they pulled out, leaving the victims to pick up the pieces of their lives, so much of which had been built on a state-sponsored lie.

This show presents an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of an undercover operative. You are tasked with winning the trust of an identified target in the hope of extracting useful information from them. In order to do so you have to assume the role of someone with views far more extreme than your own and appear comfortable talking about them. That in itself is a challenge, and a rather unsettling one.

The nature of an immersive theatre experience means that every audience member gets something different from it. That is the charm of it, and the reason why such experiences are becoming increasingly popular. However, there’s a fine line between a ‘unique’ experience and an ‘inconsistent’ one, and for any audience member on the wrong side of this line, the experience can become underwhelming at times.

The concept of the show is great, but at times the implementation could be better. It starts well. You’re introduced to your handlers who brief you on your task for the evening. You’re put into smaller groups, or units, where you come up with your own backstories and then you’re set on your way. It’s only then that things start to unravel, and you need a bit of luck as to whether you get a fully immersive experience or not.

Once the task is over you have to make a group decision as to whether the characters you met require further surveillance. Some of the group had conversations with these characters, which allowed them to make informed choices. Others who didn’t get the chance to discover anything interesting (not for lack of trying) couldn’t really engage here. We were told that our decisions would have an impact on the lives of those we judged, but this was not explained in great detail, and as a result this choice didn’t carry much of a burden.

While this type of show, by its very nature, means everyone has a different experience, the show does still have an obligation to ensure that the audience has an equal opportunity to get something from it. Shutting some participants out while letting others in might lead to a more ‘authentic’ operation, but it doesn’t lead to a good collective audience experience.

There was also a missed opportunity to demonstrate the implications of your decisions. Our group decided that we ought to put our target under surveillance, but we didn’t get the chance to see just how her life was affected as a result. There’s an opportunity here to show an audience the gravity and weight of their decisions and leave them truly affected by the choices they made, but unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. That’s not to say no attempt is made to educate the audience, but it’s not as impactful as it should have been.

Runs until 13 April 2019. | Image: Contributed

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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