There's nothing quite like being sat in a pitch-black room while an angry bald man berates you for not having any ambition. Takes me right back to my school days. That's just one of many delights peppered throughout Baz Theatre's strange and intense dreamplay.
Formed as a response to Strindberg's seminal 1905 The Dream Play, which follows the daughter of a god as she chronicles various forms of human suffering on earth, dreamplay is a promenade piece that guides us through the stygian tunnels under Waterloo Station. I'm no stranger to these gloomy passages, but the venue has an indelible, faintly sinister atmosphere. It's composed of small boxy constructs combined with vast vaulted ceilings, the stillness punctuated only by the distant rumble of trains overhead. If you're going to probe the border of dream and reality, this is definitely the place to do it.
So what exactly is dreamplay? Well, you're led between various rooms where you watch various surreal scenes. You see a jagged piss-take of the French New Wave, led by a woman going bananas. A guy sat in a bath of cold water in his pants muttering an improvised fairytale. A cyclist in hi-vis gear on the toilet promising not to piss herself again (I think). A room full of people screeching and rolling around on the floor. A guy talking us through his 'beach', which consists of sheet metal and a space heater.
You get the picture. On top of that, dreamplay does its best to keep the audience in a heightened state of tension. Cast members often pick on people in the audience, berating them for standing in the wrong place, asking them to read stuff from cards or even simply walking over to them and fixing them with an aggressive stare. They even go so far as to fake it a couple of times, mixing in a touch of paranoia as the lines between cast and audience blur. This is hugely effective - I'm usually pretty relaxed about having to interact with a piece of drama, but here I found myself hoping they'd leave me alone - imagining being dragged off to some dark cupboard and being psychologically humiliated by a grinning cellist.
Given all that, it's safe to say that dreamplay is probably a bad show to take a first date to. Even a seasoned consumer of purestrain barminess like me found it tough going at times, especially considering the sadistic glee with which the production repeatedly yanks the carpet out from under you.
On top of that, it's never quite clear exactly what's going on. I knew it was a response to Strindberg going in, and I'm vaguely familiar with The Dream Play (though I've never seen it performed). Yet even with this (admittedly pretty skeletal) knowledge I had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on. The narrative throughline weaves and wanders freely, the presences in the play so foggily defined that it's difficult to term them characters in the traditional sense.
Being completely baffled isn't such a bad thing, but it does somewhat limit any emotional engagement. The quintet of performers, Colin Hurley, Michelle Luther, Laura Moody, Jade Ogugua and Jack Wilkinson, all give it the full welly, with Moody's darkly sexualised cello accompaniment a particular highlight. Still, I wish the show wasn't quite so wilfully cryptic - 105 minutes of not knowing what the fuck is a long time, and consequentially I found myself tuning out a bit towards the end.
It's a really passionate, memorable and well-performed piece of drama, but (though I'm embarrassed to admit this) I outright don't understand what they're trying to say. A teeny-tiny pinch more clarity would go a long long way.
dreamplay is at the Vaults until 1st October 2016. Tickets here.