9th June 2017.
Your phone pings. It’s a text. “OK… Make eye contact. Instructions to follow”. From now on in you are part of the performance. Even people who’ve been to immersive theatre previously may not be prepared for what Blast Theory and Hydrocracker have created. It’s a sign of how much of a total experience ‘Operation Black Antler’ is that you struggle to identify what you can write about in a review without ruining it for somone else. And it is an experience, for most of the time there is no visible line between audience and performers.
The task is to go undercover and infiltrate an event attended by people associated with a political group ‘of interest’ to the security services. At either end of it, you are set up and eventually eased towards the ‘exit’ by people who are perhaps more obviously playing a role. Once you are in the task though, you have nowhere to go but slip and slide in to its deep dark heart.
The whole thing is subtly orchestrated to get your senses on edge and cut you adrift. On the way to the first location, a mother and daughter in the group are adamant they won’t be separated. Within minutes of arriving they are cleverly peeled apart from each other and teamed up with different people. You find yourself questioned, over-faced with information and seamlessly coached to assume a role. You’re getting instructions through your mobile phone, but then you start to take the initiative – you find you want to please your handlers, support your team mates and do a good job. You are caught up in the task, in the chase, and something kicks in. You hear your unit colleagues and yourself saying things other people want to hear, things you don’t believe, but you want to see how far it will go. It is both exhilarating and terrifying.
There are moments when everything starts to blur. You spot a couple of friends so there must be other audience members in the room but there are a lot of people. How many of them are acting and who else is ‘real’? The whole scenario is unnerving and totally convincing. There is an air of genuine menace – it is crowded, hot and noisy.
When you are finally freed from that world it is a relief to breathe in some fresh air. After being controlled, carried along and compromised you are suddenly left with your own thoughts. How much further would you have gone? How would you feel if this happened to friends of yours who believed in a cause you support? Would you be so willing to support surveillance of them?
Operation Black Antler rarely feels forced or staged, creating something so authentic it seems to re-wire you for a time. You may not have total control but ultimately you have enough to be forced to take responsibility for your actions. It is like a shot of adrenaline straight to your moral compass.