Immersive Theatre Now

A radical restructuring of Federico García Lorca from Metta Theatre, tackles our preoccupation with knife-crime and highlights the writer’s relevance today.

“Shocking new figures reveal the true scale of knife crime epidemic in the UK.” “Mothers of knife crime victims tell their heart-breaking stories.” “Teacher stabbed to death while walking her dog on playing fields.” “Almost 17 people a day convicted for carrying a knife.” *

This is just a selection of headlines from the past couple of years. Federico García Lorca, writing in 1932, expanded on these issues in a manner that reminds us of the cylindrical nature of contentious issues over the ages. A radical writer of his time, and cohort of seminal figures in 21st Century culture, including Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, Lorca’s work straddles genres. Originally a work on Spain’s rural community, Blood Wedding lurches into the surreal, social criticism, and occasionally into feminism. Poppy Burton, director and founder of Metta Theatre, coins their latest production “Lorca for the 21st Century.” A writer once so revolutionary, still has a damming comment to make on our contemporary society: “We’re in a city [London] now where knife crime is endemic, to make that link with Lorca seems obvious.”

Founded in 2005, Metta Theatre “wears its theatricality on its sleeve”, embellishing a lineage of postmodern “metas”, which serve to enhance the subject’s role in a fiction. Meta-fiction, meta-film, and meta-theatre welcome an awareness of the fiction through, for example, narrative impositions by the author, the audience or other real life figures, alternative endings, non-linear narrative, or audience participation. The production is rooted in the overlaps in art and culture: “Theatre is about telling stories in a way that visual representational art isn’t but you can analyse it using the same scores. I paint the stage with light, with people, with different levels and with sound.” Burton has always been attracted to this hyper-awareness: “I’ve always been interested in theatre that’s really honest about its theatricality. Television and film do a brilliant job of very close, subtle, natural realism and theatre offers something slightly different.”

Blood Wedding explores the knife culture and gang problems of rural Spain. Tellingly, for the femi-centric slant of Lorca’s work, the cast list begins with the play’s women who are very much central to the play despite the themes of gangs, violence, and masculinity. “What’s true in Lorca’s time, our time, possibly several generations in between, is that often it’s men and male culture that enables this culture of violence, honour killings and fighting and it’s the women who become the victims of that because they’re the ones who have been left behind having lost their sons and their husbands. That’s something special about Lorca, he really does tell the story from the women.”

Immediately opening with the Mother’s laments on her lost son and husband, the focus on the women left behind is immediately clear. These crimes lie at the hands of the Felix family. While the Groom plans his forthcoming nuptials, the Neighbour tells of the Bride’s earlier affair with Leonardo Felix. The Mother’s anger and resentment still linger and she is immediately suspicious of her future daughter-in-law. Meanwhile, the audience catches a glimpse of the now married Leonardo’s unhappy existence with his wife, mother-in-law, and child. Leonardo is brusque and resentful, the brooding, ill-suited romantic hero. The nuptials and wedding party begin, a blaze of song, dance and celebration until the Bride goes astray. It quickly transpires that the Bride has escaped on horseback with her ex-lover Leonardo and a search party ventures into the woods, where the action departs from peasants’ realism to surreal escapades between the Moon, onlooking Woodcutters, and Death as an old woman.

Burton relishes this momentary lurch towards the outlandish for the new qualities that it can bring to the production: “It gives you this incredible opportunity to do fantastic and bizarre things, and give the audience a snapshot of something rather crazy even if it is just for a split second before going back into a more real world.” The lovers’ dialogue tells of their forbidden desires but the Moon and Death have already conspired to end the scene in a bloody battle. The women of the search party return with the Bride and the bodies of her two lovers, the Mother once more lamenting the violence of masculine bravado and the in-fighting across the countryside. Only Leonardo, surrounded by stock characters such as the Mother, the Bride, the Groom, the Servant, takes a name in Lorca’s play, emphasising the universality of the text. “They’re archetypes, that’s what makes it universal and gives us licence to create our own theatricality rather than complying either with Lorca’s intentions, or with this contemporary world that we’ve set up. It becomes something almost Greek, these are the archetypes, these are their symbols or ciphers to project our own thoughts and feelings on to.”

Embracing this universality, Burton’s adaptation takes us beyond Lorca’s woodland mysticism, urbanising the setting to transform woodcutters into road workers, rivers into canals, folk songs into hip hop: “I think that’s in the spirit of Lorca as well because he was breaking moulds, breaking boundaries in his day. Hopefully he would applaud that it didn’t become an archaic piece of period drama, because there’s something so much more contemporary and relevant about it, particularly in terms of knife crime.” Lorca’s text had a fairly radical re-write at the hands of Metta Theatre, with the structure adapted to more easily incorporate the audience’s involvement in the play, with guests entering directly into the wedding celebrations, and a movement into more private scenes after the audience’s first big role. Burton is cautious, however, of making this universality excessively apparent: “I can’t bear those plays that update themselves by being painfully contemporary and reference Gordon Brown and particular tube stations in London. Hopefully we’ve straddled both worlds in that it has the real feel and flavour of contemporary urban London, but at the same time the passion and the colour speaks to a kind of earlier Spanish, even Latin American feel.” The wedding in particular becomes a celebratory explosion, with eating and drinking, music and colour, and Burton has used the mixed ethnicity of the cast to embellish this. “A lot of music is referencing their heritage, the wedding numbers are slightly gospel influenced and calypso, often those Afro-Caribbean elements fit very well with Spanish rhythms,” but she’s keen to add, “the thing is, it’s all open to revision, when we get into rehearsals it might all change and develop into something else.” Somehow the whole idea and production behind Blood Wedding feels very off the cuff and organic, enhancing the lack a daisy, party feel for the wedding guests/ audience to embrace the moment.

On entering the Southwark Playhouse “guests” are given a drink, food and a song sheet. “There’s an expanding out into the space and everyone’s a part of that as audience and performer. The audience become participants in the drama and there’s a sense that they’re in some ways culpable for the murders that happen because they’re chivvied into looking for the Bride and Leonardo, joining the search party. So hopefully the audience will go along the journey with the characters.” Metta Theatre practice in a popular tradition of participatory theatre alongside Punch Drunk and Shunt, but Blood Wedding provides a variation on this theme by contextualising a 1930s script. “I was interested in doing something that was a classic text and being true to that classic text, there must be a world where you can retain the story and still use the audience in a way that it becomes interactive and immersive.” This is theatre as event, socialising and interacting with a different time, and finding a common thread.

Blood Wedding was staged at the Southwark Playhouse until 15 August 2009.

Pauline Bache

* [Headline credits: Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph].