Creators: Chloe Mashiter, Zoe Flint, Amy Strike and Owen Kingston
An abandoned manor home, vast and glorious even in its shadowed state, but something other than spectres lurk the hallways. The cold tendrils of science-fiction work their way into the superlative marble of historical drama, marrying the tragedy of the past with the potential of the present as Parabolic Theatre transcribe one of Western culture’s finest works, The Cenci, into a durational four-week, four-act production synergising the mediums of live performance, text-based video gaming and immersive world-building.
Before delving into the digital realms of game theory and design, the roots of The House of Cenci stem from the theatre, and the production’s manoeuvring of the text adventure to uncover Zoom links to create windows into the lives of the characters. It expands on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s verse drama of a young woman executed for the murder of her cruel and tyrannical father.
Parabolic Theatre’s creative team embarks on the ideology that immersive theatre is a spectrum of experiences, pulling the audience into a shared space with the performers of The House of Cenci, whether this be the sneering majesty of Edward Cartwright’s Cardinal or Eleanor Russo’s energetic, if easily tired and unstable, Lucrezia. The whole cast takes on the difficulty of not only setting out their scripted story, but answering questions, jibes, and accusations from audiences, but two diverse performances achieve this above all others.
Effortlessly coaxing the audience into the ambience of the turn of the 17th century, as well as the decadence of the chrome-plated seventies, is Dare Emmanuel as cleric and future FBI agent Orsino. And without the benefit of face-to-face discussion, Beth Jay’s Beatrice may exist in coded form but communicates the destructive nature of patriarchal abuse and survival instincts of women magnanimously.
And as much as the live interactions and lyrical nature of the writing reflects an adoration for the theatrical and literary history of the text, there is an undeniably sensational celebration and marriage of the art form with its much younger sibling – gaming. The world-building experience opened up by incorporating the text-based adventure serves to infuse the narrative with a tremendous sense of interactivity and autonomy.
As such the entire four-act structure of the game portion of The House of Cenci emanates the majesty of pioneering text-based and puzzling point and click creations Monkey Island or Zork but amalgamates a macabre sense of contemporary games such as the infamously twisted Doki Doki Literature Club!
But let not the technical capability of game coding, or the treasure hunt of live Zoom interactions disguise the true creative brilliance found within the house’s ever-expanding walls; that of the adaptive nature of the script, transferring the bleak tale of a classic tragedy, and reinvigorating Shelley’s script for a #MeToo world, heralding Beatrice as the central player within the text. Not as victim or villain, but as an instigator and unyielding force, proffering the audience to look within themselves to ‘finish’ the story and either free, confine or ignore the cries for help.
And going hand-in-hand with Michael Wray’s ominous composition, the gradual sense of claustrophobia emerges as we delve deeper into the ever-expanding house, replicating the lives of these children, these women who would forever remain trapped under the ever-present gaze of their perverse and sadistic father. It aids in spending time reading (something audiences will need to become comfortable with. Vitally though, Parabolic Theatre’s show never feels taxing, infusing enough enjoyment, skill level and imagery and audio design to immerse enigma hunters, theatre buffs and general audiences all around.
Chloe Mashiter, Amy Strike, Zoe Flint and Owen Kingston demonstrate that limitation is the avatar of creativity. To produce a technical and artistic feat like this in current lockdown climates is a testament to the imagination and pride of Parabolic Theatre. The House of Cenci pays tribute to the ghosts of the past, branching an olive tree to broker an alliance of sublime perfection between live theatre, game theory and world-building like few other production companies.