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This theatrical installation is a well-meaning folly
Half a century on from the Roundhouse’s radical heyday and it’s heartening that the storied venue can still turn its entire main space over to a well-meaning folly like ‘Utopia’.
Arguably the giant installation isn’t even a theatre show, and it should perhaps instead have been reviewed by one of my art colleages, who might very well have declared it a masterpiece. But from my perspective it certainly shares a lot of DNA with immersive theatre – most specifically Punchdrunk’s actor-free 2009 show ‘It Felt Like a Kiss – and is not a masterpiece (though it is interesting).
‘Utopia’ is a collaboration between documentary maker Penny Woolcock and ‘radical set designers’ Block9. Audiences are free to wander about the giant set, a sort of gritty, slightly sci-fi version of Camden with Woolcock’s recorded interviews with numerous regular Camden folk playing from dozens of hidden speakers, creating a disconcerting bed of slippery sound and story.
The individual components are pretty remarkable – technically accomplished and hard-hitting. The most powerful bit of the experience for me was sitting at a bench in a litter strewn street, listening to the recording of an erstwhile UCL student describing how her life fell apart and she was made homeless, in heartbreakingly matter-of-fact fashion.
But the whole is confused. The stories I heard seem to all be about decent people let down by the system; the climax of the show is a video wall in which a bunch of regular folk read out the fierier, proto-Marxist stuff from Thomas More’s landmark 1516 philosophical tract ‘Utopia’. So I suppose logically I’d deduce that Woolcock is highlighting the unkindness of our current government and calling for a change. Which is great, but the argument’s about as sharp as a sponge, wrapped in an installation show that’s well-crafted but fundamentally underpowered next to the gargantuan worlds of Punchdrunk, who have set the gold standard for this sort of thing.
Still, the interviews are strong, and for just £10 a session it’s a novel way to take in a documentary. Just don’t go expecting it to spark a revolution.