In a way I'm envious of the Arts House facilitators who make this show happen. Installed with video goggles and an iPod, an audience of one or two are drawn into a dark fantasy world, their senses hijacked by the carnival spirits of Il Pixel Russo, a UK group restlessly combining everyday technologies in surprisingly theatrical ways.
Once we don our goggles and headset, the Arts House facilitators simulate for our other senses – our sense of motion, smell, touch – the pre-recorded reality we are made to see and hear. We are whisked away in a wheelchair, crammed into a car; we can smell alcohol, perfume, fire; we receive gifts and letters. The facilitators have the opportunity to watch – to intimately observe – our reactions as we enter into this world.
Il Pixel Russo describe this kind of theatre as "autoteatro film performance". You may recognise the "autoteatro" part. The word was coined by another UK group called Rotozaza, who were also recently at Arts House, with their cafe drama Etiquette, where an audience of two, receiving instruction via headphones, performed the play between themselves.
In And the Birds Fell from the Sky, however, there is much less of the traditional "play" than in Etiquette. It is a transition, almost like a postcard from another place, a jumble of scenes – an intriguing glimpse of art as it might one day be.
This kind of theatre where the audience is roped into the performance is described by practitioners as providing a "participatory experience". But the model of audio instruction which groups like Il Pixel Russo employ doesn't fulfil everyone's idea of "participation". After the initial sense of wonder at the effectiveness of the goggles had subsided, my strongest feeling during this show was a sense of manipulation.
In bringing their imaginary world so very close, enveloping the senses, they bring its limitations just as near, completely shackling the audience and denying any freedom to explore their world.
Participation is limited to obeying imperatives: "look left", "turn to your right", "hold out your hand". In the early stages of the performance, this actually feels empowering. It feels good to be a yea-sayer, to think, yes, I will take a step into the unknown and enter this alien dream, to be someone else, see what someone else has seen and think someone else's thoughts. But it is hard to maintain enthusiasm for such a limited life, and the feeling of empowerment quickly turns to frustration.
Whatever this is, it's not escapism. Yes, you break from this reality. But where to? If it is an escape, it's an escape into captivity. Of course, traditional theatre engages a whole scheme of not-too-dissimilar "rules" and hardly-less-patent "manipulations", but the effect of a traditional performance is not so imperilled by non-conformity as it is in this piece. The illusion beneath a procenium arch does not disintegrate utterly if, on whatever whim, one chooses to focus on the minutiae of set design and miss a key plot point.
Still, this is a start, and perhaps the rules and manipulations of theatre do need to be exagerated in this way before the form break through into something truly new.