Don’t get me wrong. ‘Cages’ is certainly a visual feast, and a triumph of innovation. It cost millions to put together, and it is ground-breaking. After almost three years without a Theatre Club outing, me and my friends were really looking forward to it. The description on the theatre website was unspecific and we were willing to be surprised. We went in with an open mind.
Let’s start with what was good. The blend of holograms and live action was pretty seamless. By this I mean that the actor who had the job of interacting with the two or possibly three projected screens on the stage generally stood in the right place and put his arms in the right place. It took a while to work out what was going on, and the conceit was quite clever. Some of the water and fire effects were impressive. Computer graphics has moved on a lot since the 80s. The steampunk vibe was funky, in a good way, although a little derivative. The idea of using captions, in the stye of a silent movie, was interesting. I wasn’t bored. The traffic-cone-hatted love police were appropriately sinister (although I did wonder how they saw through the traffic cones). There were some interesting nods to Nostradamus, and to the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Having said I wasn’t bored, I did spend most of the show wanting it to end. Here’s why.
First, a caveat: I wasn’t expecting a musical (or, to be more precise, rock opera with voiceover and visual captions). In the main, I regard the musical as like a sofa-bed: it does two things badly. There are some exceptions: Jungle Book, My Fair Lady, and Oliver!, in the main, have excellent songs. It’s not even the aspect of people breaking into song that troubles me. I mean: I like opera. Giving the plot in song is fine, in my book. The Wall is a great film. I enjoyed Evita. My personal problem is that the music in musicals is almost always utterly lacking in polyrhythms, and generally the melodies aren’t that hot. Dear Reader, you are reading a review by someone who was probably not the target audience for this event, and didn’t read the small print. Proceed accordingly.
Musically, ‘Cages’ was pretty much an Ah-ha video as imagined by Tim Burton. The musical director did run the gamut of genres – as well as the schmaltzy musical-style string-based music that you always get, there was a bit of classical, some house and techno, a pop tune at the end, some Steve Vai-style noodling in the middle, even a smattering of power chords. The music wasn’t terrible. The melodies were somewhat derivative (‘Save The Best For Last’ sprang to mind). The lyrics, however, were, like the words of the voiceover, diabolical. I had to facepalm in the dark as shockingly predictable rhymes were not just sung, but protected onto the screen. My old lecturer, Jonathan Myerson, used to write ‘OTN’ in the margin if your characters told each other exactly how they felt: ‘on the nose.’ Pretty much the entire show was OTN. At one point a caption appeared, pointing out something that we might have missed. If there was a possibility of us not getting a plot point, the voiceover boomed it at us. I’m a writer. Giving me such cheesy words for two hours is like serving a French person a bad meal. It doesn’t end well.
Which brings me to the central point of the show. This was a love story. It was about a ‘man with a red heart’ (as if all hearts are not red) whose love is so powerful that it makes music which saves the world. So far so encouraging. But our hero, Woolf (who seemed to have the same name as his eponymous troupe of actors, blending the real actor with the fictional character), fell in love with … an avatar. We were supposed to believe in this love. We were supposed to understand that his ethereal love interest, Madeline, was somehow weird, and so was he, and this was great. There was no indicator of how she was weird. What I saw onstage was a pretty girl in a crinoline who somewhat resembled Helena Bonham Carter. As she didn’t speak, or say anything particularly interesting in her captions, I didn’t get a sense of her personality. Nor did I get a sense of the love. The couple didn’t actually do anything together. They didn’t go out or stay in, they didn’t make memories. This was a love utterly lacking in specificity. It was a love lacking in all the messiness that makes up love. Because love is confusing, complicated, annoying, enthralling, all-encompassing, and very specific. You need to understand the details, in order to understand that love is there. Let me give an example. A friend of mine refused to go to the tutor’s house for tutorials, because the tutor had animals and my friend didn’t want to bring back the animal dander to his wife, who was highly allergic. That’s love. That kind of specificity in tenderness. The love presented to us, accompanied by shudderingly loud booms and power chords, struck me as a love story written by someone who had never been in love.
On to the relentlessness of it. The show was very loud. I don’t mind loud. Loud is a great volume for music. Perhaps the intent was to increase the immersiveness. And I did hope to become emotionally immersed. Instead, we were preached at, exceedingly cheesily, about Anhedonia. The audience staring at the screen in the dark reminded me of cultish end-of-Boomtown visuals, where the character projected on the screen takes over the city. I did wonder whether there had been any subliminal messages inserted into the show, and whether the audience would pop out the next day and buy an overpriced designer brand, or vote Conservative, or something equally out-of-character for Hammersmith.
The cast, who had been desperately underused after the first few minutes, came out in the interval and stared moodily at the audience, to a level almost amounting to harassment. One poor lady was struggling to get back to her seat while four steampunk aspirants were glaring around at everyone like musicians on an emo album cover, blocking her way. There was a lot of nervous tittering, but I suspected that the actors, who had been sitting backstage for an hour while Woolf threw his ego around with his avatar lady-friend, were bored shitless and had asked to have a role.
Our neighbours left during the interval, and did not return. Perhaps we should have followed suit. The second half was more of the same. There was an interminably self-indulgent ‘trip’ sequence, which could have been enlivened by some technicolor visuals, or the pumping of psychoactive substances into the hall, but in the absence of either, fell somewhat flat. The emotions that our hero Woolf was dealing with were shoved down our throats by the narrator, and represented in unsurprisingly banal fashion. Woolf was shot with an arrow, ran through some catacombs with Day of the Dead visuals, and then returned to the Houses of Parliament clock where he continued to make musical mayhem. The underused cast finally got a chance to come onstage and dance. And at last we got to the final chapter, ‘Execution’, which signalled that we’d be released soon, and probably not be stared at moodily on exit. The end was somewhat botched: due to all the avatars, the audience weren’t clear when the curtain was, and some of them clapped too early.
It may be that this is the beginning of a new style of show that blends avatars, holograms, SFX and live action. ‘Cages’ was certainly clever, although a bit of a one-trick pony. It would have benefitted from more actors interacting, some actual acting, and the love interests connecting with each other. (My friend kept saying, ‘she wasn’t there!’)
My biggest complaint was that the whole experience was anhedonic. I didn’t give a stuff about Woolf and Madeline and their problems, or the problems of other shadowy figures, or the traffic-cone-headed emotional correction police. I slightly marvelled at the visuals, although if I had wanted to see CGI, I could have stayed at home with House Of The Dragon. I’m aware that ABBA have avatars, and that’s alright for people who like ABBA and want to see avatars. But I went to the theatre to see the magic of theatre. To see the thing you cannot recreate, but that is born night after night. To see acting. To be wrapped up, along with a few hundred other people, in a moment that is so powerful, you suspend disbelief – you don’t need a realistic set, or even a set – the actors create a world and the audience are in it. You could do that with an avatar. This show didn’t.
And maybe this was the point. Maybe we were supposed to enjoy this virtual experience, after two or three years without theatre. Maybe we are supposed to be used to being at one remove. Maybe this is the shape of things to come, if the fuel required to power it doesn't become prohibitively expensive. But the fact is, we are animals and we need to smell other animals. We get a lot from the pheromones of actors, even if they are twenty feet away. We want to connect. More than that. We need to connect.
All we really need is NOT a ‘la-la-la-la love song’, as we were told in four-foot-high caps, Times New Roman. No. All we really need is to be in a space with other humans, and to experience magic. And despite all the bells and whistles, as a story ‘Cages’ left me cold-hearted.