Metatheatre is everywhere these days, the fourth wall frequently breached. Actors, in or out of character, address the audience directly or simply remind them they are in a theatre, sharing imagination for the duration of a story. Sometimes there are no walls at all. As a Protester in Counting Sheep (an Edinburgh hit redirected by Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin of Belarus Free Theatre at The Vaults until tomorrow), I was among those – actors, singers, punters – involved in helping to recreate the experience of the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, first eating and dancing together, then shifting tyres and sandbags. We were all “playing” in both senses of the word. Towards the end of the experience we outsiders were addressed by the writers, who had been participants in the actual events, and given some of the facts, personal and political, which we felt we had tasted first-hand.
Last year, Robert Icke’s production of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck at the Almeida had characters break off to tell the audience how the playwright’s own life shadowed the events of the play. In the National Theatre’s current production of Tartuffe, directed by Blanche McIntyre (Lyttelton, until April 30th, in rep) the audience is reminded from the stage of its responsibility to address society’s inequalities. And in Così fan Tutte at the Royal Opera House (just ending, but surely a dead cert for a further revival) the young lovers, glorious singers to a man and woman, climb into the action from stage-side seats and remain in modern gear throughout.
The term “metatheatre” is almost redundant at the Globe. Here, especially in the outside theatre, the audience is virtually another character, sharing the same light and weather as the players, often involved directly in jokes or as a mob (in, say, Julius Caesar or Richard III) and acknowledging that we are all sharing imagination (made explicit in the Chorus’s scene-setting speech in Henry V) rather than simply losing ourselves in someone else’s story. The play-within-the play, as in Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, experiments with the idea of theatre itself onstage as some of the players become audience and the effect is especially pertinent at the Globe.
In the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the feeling is rather different, the spectators being in a darkened space where actors are lit, albeit by candles, but here too the audience is often swept into the action with characters appearing behind or beside them or making eye-contact. In the case of the current Richard II (in which Adjoa Andoh gives a riveting performance, tougher than many Richards without simply mimicking maleness) sepia pictures of the cast’s grandmothers are hung from the gallery, a reminder of the real lives of the players – all women of colour – as they create an imagined world of Empire.
In Nicholas Hytner’s fascinating and original Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre last year, some members of the audience promenaded, opting to be citizens, policed as an unruly mob or encouraged to respond verbally to the oratory of Brutus and Antony. Soon, the same theatre will offer the opportunity to be lost in the magical woodland alongside the fairies and lovers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It seems strange to call some of these experiences “immersive”. Interesting, certainly, sometimes revealing or exciting, but – although admittedly they often involve non-actors in the action – it is impossible to forget that you are in a theatre, alert to being moved around or getting out of the way of the professional players. One thing is certain, it’s very definitely a social activity, a million miles from clicking on a screen. And there’s a great deal to be said for that.