We’ve seen several attempts to create “immersive” promenade theatre in Sydney in recent years.
Some have worked. Others have fallen down because the narrative and dramatic aspects dwindled as the performance unfolded.
But Visiting Hours gets it right. Here, for once, is a show that engages its audience emotionally, not just viscerally, or with the short-lived appeal of novelty.
The experience begins at street level with the audience (pulsed through the show in groups of 20) entering a dark anteroom staffed by a nurse played by Laura Djanegarra, one of a cast of 29 actors and musicians. She dispenses greetings and a dose of something relaxing.
Don’t worry, she tells us. No harm can come to you here.
The fact that she says it more than once immediately rings an alarm bell.
A door swings open and we are in a second anteroom, this one featuring a jazz quintet playing Johnny Mercer’s Dream (a musical motif of the experience) and an improbably ancient long-term resident who sets the narrative gears turning.
Masks are handed out.
An elevator ride then takes us into the world of The Doctor (Tom McCracken), a physician-quack with some unusual methods, several of which you will be subjected to during a very hands-on (but humorous) induction process. While there isn’t a conventional narrative as such, the world we’re in and our role in it is clearly defined.
Working on five floors of the Kings Cross Hotel, designers Anna Gardiner (set), Benjamin Brockman (lights) and Tegan Nicholls (sound and music) create striking spaces within the existing architecture and décor of the building and build some disorienting new ones.
Rooms are divided into unfamiliar shapes by makeshift walls and acres of plastic sheeting. Stairwells become passageways into the unknown. Even regular visitors to the hotel may find themselves pausing to work out where they are.
Directed by John Harrison and Michael Dean (the script and scenarios are jointly written by Harrison, Constantine Costi and Michael Costi), the operational clarity of the piece is such that, as when visiting a real hospital, you quickly fall in with its rhythms and procedures and into a state of alert submissiveness.
Over its 90 minutes, the experience changes markedly. The initial camaraderie forged among strangers in a strange place dissolves into something solitary and contemplative as you progress from a meticulously staged medical drama and into an otherworldly place where all boundaries have dissolved.
It’s quite a trip.