Secret Cinema – The Shawshank Redemption

12:21 pm in Featured, Review by EVNT

Secret Cinema (like its sister event Future Cinema) is one of the stalwarts of the immersive theatre scene in London. In a genre that has grown consistently throughout the recession,despite ticket prices reaching the £35 – £40 mark, Secret Cinema has proven itself time and again as one of the most innovative and skillful set ups in the business, consistently selling out every show.

So how did the modern classic Shawshank Redemption fare under the Secret Cinema treatment? As always, a considerable budget and attention to detail was immediately apparent. Not just in the sets and props (which were excellent), but also in the fact that an impressive team of writers, directors, production managers and performers, all on top of their game and passionate about delivering an outstanding experience, had obviously been brought together for this production.

From the start my fellow “inmates” and I, were thrown in to the life of Andy Dufresne (although this was deliberately ambiguous at first so as not to reveal the identity of the film too soon), starting at the guilty verdict at his trial – where we each received our own sentence – then an unceremonious march on to a 1950′s prison bus, with blacked-out windows, for transport to Shawshank. On board we were briefed on the prison (and event) rules of conduct by a menacing prison guard. On arrival at Shawshank (a large Victorian Boarding School in East London), the reality that our lives were about to be consumed for ever came crashing in. As we stepped off the bus we were met and immediately goaded by a mob of hardened inmates (actors and other newly processed participants) to the chanting of “fresh meat! fresh meat!”.

Next we were marched in to a large room where we separated by body size (A,B,C and D) and ordered to strip down to our underwear (the long johns and vests which we were warned to wear in advance) and issued with our numbers and ill-fitting,  denim prison clothing (I was number *****020). With the clothes from our old lives in a sack in our arms, barefoot and semi naked, we were marched through cold corridors, past other sneering inmates and most shockingly through the shower area
where a naked, bloodied inmate was being tortured and strangled by a guard while another naked “sister” looked on at us with seedily amorous overtures as we passed through. Our final destination was our cell, a communal room with five bunk beds, each with a copy of the King James Bible, resting on a foam pillow (no rock hammer inside, but a nice touch). There we got dressed, sat and waited for some time reflecting on what we had just witnessed. My favourite part then followed, when all 200
plus inmates were let out to stand overlooking the central prison hall way. The warden walked in and informed us that one of our fellow inmates had been shot dead during an altercation in the exercise yard (a scene we had all witnessed previously). The information sparked a non-violent singing protest among the inmates.  We all stood and in full voice sang a defiant Christian hymn (written out on a piece of paper given to us earlier) much to the Warden’s anger.  This was a much  needed respite from the stress of imprisonment that enabled all of the newly incarcerated to regain some autonomy and self- respect (by that point I already knew of one punter who had left, highlighting the effectiveness of the immersion).

After an hour of set piece scenarios we were left to roam the prison, moving through various rooms, the infirmary, the canteen etc. each with their own set of actors, stories and intrigues.  After two or three hours of experiencing life in Shawshank (depending on how early you arrived), we were led in batches to different rooms each with their own cinema screen (my group watched the film in the Library).  A final fun touch was during the rooftop scene where Dufresne manages to persuade the head guard to give the men two bottles of beer each while they work in return for his financial services.  At that moment we were all supplied with a free “bottle of suds”!

I was very impressed by the whole experience (I was about to say “I enjoyed the experience”, but my feelings were more complex and varied than that).  I think Shawshank is a classic film and an excellent choice for a Secret Cinema.  There is no scarier concept for a free person to imagine than life imprisonment. For this reason, the prison setting is a perfect canvas on which to build an immersive world.   However, because of its inherent malevolence, one must use know how to employ a light directorial / writing touch to ensure that participants leave exhilarated and enlightened rather than terrified and depressed.  For me the cast and by extension to the whole production team, dealt with finding the right balance very well.  The actors were stern and stayed in character but in a deliberately light-hearted way at times, often with a nudge and a wink, to ensure we were still having fun.  I always felt that had I needed to call time out I would have been in safe hands.  If the whole point of this immersive experience was to take the participant to the edge of a new reality, then on a journey that constantly pushed personal boundaries so that the subject matter of the film could be better understood, then I think they did a fine job.

I would thoroughly recommend Secret Cinema (or Future Cinema) to anyone with a sense of adventure who likes the idea of getting inside a film via the use of immersive theatre.  Don’t let the price tag throw you off, it’s actually great value if you consider you’re watching a film in a cinema with a few free drinks and also a three hour theatre experience included. I am definitely up for the next one (if I can grab a ticket before they sell out again!).

Alex Pappaioannou