Sunday, 19 September 2021

REVIEW: Is This a Wasteland? at the Bridgewater at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

An old man with a Buddha statue, the three-man ski team with one ski each, two people with the shades off of old street lights, both compelled to put them on their heads, and me, with my padlock. 

We embark in a single file line to an empty plot in the shadow of East London’s high-rise neighbourhoods, the London Stadium and an M&S. The concrete stage is punctuated with weeds and piles of rubbish if you choose to see them that way, but Charlotte Spencer’s cast will challenge you to see them otherwise. Our headphones tell us the performance has already begun, and so the challenge begins. 

Narrated through headphones and ‘performed’ by the audience, Is This a Wasteland? takes a disused space and asks the audience to make of it what they will. This begins immediately, as you are invited to pick out an object from the ‘object shop’ of abandoned, broken and recycled relics of the tip. I don’t know why I picked up my padlock but I did, and then worried if I’d made the right choice, unsure what I would have to do with it. Many others were in my same predicament, swapping and changing their objects, seeing what they could be used for, sharing an instinct to put them on their heads. Once we had made it to the ‘stage’ the voice in our headphones tells us to abandon them; to just leave them with the other rubbish. That’s when I felt silly for pondering so long over my decision.

This is where I find my issue with Is This A Wasteland?. Many times throughout the interactive performance I found myself asking questions of my actions, my fellow audience and indeed of the space, as Charlotte Spencer surely wanted me to, however, like my precious padlock, these questions were always abandoned as soon as my disembodied narrator directed me blindly to my next activity. After a while, I stopped asking. 

That isn’t to say the whole show went completely over my head. Spencer herself said the performance plays with ‘ideas of autonomy, agency, co-responsibility, authority…’, and as we built towers of rubbish, danced with bamboo sticks and tore down other people’s creations, we were a picture of a comprehensive study on how and why people follow rules. In honesty, by the time our quasi-leader, clad in double denim, crowned our tower of rubbish with the yellow, goggle-wearing soft toy and we all cheered at our achievement, we were only some gasoline and a few matches away from a comprehensive study on how cults form. 

Although these quirks and questions of human nature were thrown up, our silent and unified attempt at meaning-making only speaks volumes to the fact that there didn’t seem to be much meaning at all; at least not in the moment. The point got lost behind the concept, and, as unique as the concept was, the narration that shaped the performance fell slightly short of an exploration into Spencer’s thematic preoccupations and simply became a list of benign tasks for us to follow. However, it was set to an incredibly immersive soundscape, courtesy of James Keane and Tom Spencer. 

As the show drew to a close, the narration changed, and in a brief speech explained how in every abandoned space one can find signs of communities on the fringe, making do with what they have. And thus was answered the question that truly we already knew the answer to; Is This A Wasteland? No.

Although the message is poignant and important, it could have been relayed in a much more focused and concise way. Nevertheless, Is This A Wasteland? was a truly unique experience, and, whilst it could be said of theatre, this one will really be about what each individual audience member makes of it. 

Is This A Wasteland? Plays in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park until the 26 September. 

Review by Anna Smith

Rating: ★★

Seat: Unassigned | Price of Ticket: £20

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