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Paranoia and brave new worlds - Rift talk to RunRiot about The Trial and the new all-night Macbeth


Retz's production of Kafka's The Trial had everyone talking last year. Staged in the streets and dark corners of East London municipal buildings the audience became part of the event, facing public arrests and private interrogations. The production sparked a buzz of stories about things seen and experiences felt, each time a little different. Before that founders Felix Mortimer and Josh Nawras worked on a six month retelling of The Tempest (O Brave New World) in a shop in Hoxton in 2012.


It's become clear that that Retz (since renamed Rift) are set on breaking boundaries and opening up new ways to perform. Felix is the director and has worked on a number of innovative site-specific projects while Josh's background is in performance and production with work for the Royal Shakespeare Company. When I met them - in a cafe just down the road from last year's set of The Trial - they were buzzing with unusual ideas.


Right now Rift are in the final stages of preparting for the launch of their latest all-night performance of Macbeth. Staged 8pm to 8am it could perhaps be described as a visceral waking dream, but we'll hear the reactions from the first audience members later on this month.There are rumours of witches in the parking lot, feasts with the Macbeths and the audience are invited into the action. Felix and Josh were cagey about the location, but rumours abound of a 60s brutalist towerblock. They shared some thoughts on paranoia, haunting dreams and the perils of ambition... And breaking into a nuclear bunker along the way.


Emily Shipp: With The Trial there seemed to be a focus on paranoia – there were people on the street taking pictures of you with smartphones and a feeling that you were being watched...


Felix Mortimer: That was essential- the actors knew what the people looked like, but it actually worked really well as a technique in terms of adding the paranoia. That section of the piece was so interesting.


Josh Nawras: When people are in that world they're ready to see stories everywhere... It’s really scary to get an audience and give them complete freedom.


ES: Did staging The Trial mean throwing planning out of the window?


F: Planning is so crucial to everything we do. That project was to the second and everyone had Casio watches and there was huge spreadsheets about where audience members and actors had to be at any one time. This project (Macbeth) is not too dissimilar.


J: We call it the cascade system.


F: Yeah, we have one chance to be control freaks and this is it. 90 people – poor things – are within our clutches for 12 hours and who knows what will happen to them?


J: It’s really exciting. And I think you’re right, there’s ideas of paranoia that within the Kafka story was just us responding to the questions we were asking each other at the time. It feels like a Kafka-esque nightmare, almost, at times living in modern society and what would Kafka make of the modern world?


F: If you were being really Freudian about it our first project was based on The Tempest and we’d just both quit our awful jobs at an arts centre. I think it was a brave new world for us to embark on. And then The Trial was this existential crisis. And then Macbeth, who knows, read into that one psychologically. Ambition is towering over us.


ES: In terms of ambition, the new Macbeth project seems to be even more ambitious than The Trial…


F: We came out of The Trial and we just wanted to make something really, really small…


J: …and beautiful


F: …and jolly. Maybe for children…


ES: In that case what made you pick Macbeth?


J: The building really, and…


F: …well, I used to be a schoolteacher and I used to teach Macbeth to children and I think that’s where the gestation of the idea came from. And then the people who owned the building came to see The Trial and they offered us the chance to propose something to fit into it and we had some conversations and what really struck us was, as Josh says, the building, so violent and aggressive.


ES: It’s interesting that you mentioned that it was the place that triggered it. I was just thinking back to your past plays and the place has been really important. Obviously in The Trial you had several different locations. How do you go about picking a place? What is it that you look for?


F: Usually places pick us. Back in 2011 we were working in this arts centre. We were having a terrible time and we’d been knocking on the door of Hackney council for two years. And eventually they relented and gave us a space – a shop. Previously we'd broken into a nuclear bunker…


J: …in Tottenham


F: Harringay council – where it all goes if it goes tits up. They made it in the cold war. And we were bored one Tuesday and just thought, ‘lets break in’...


J: ...Behind the arts centre where we’d clawed our eyes out at the lack of opportunity to make things and erm, I just remember climbing over a wall into this place and Felix was like, ‘We have to go and look at this bunker’. And we just went into this space and felt like we were stepping into a world where stories could exist and that was really, really exciting. ...Some of Felix’s tools are still locked up in that space and we never went back to get them.


ES: There’s been quite a spate of immersive theatre events over the last few years, why do you think that is?


F: There’s two driving forces, I think. The people who are making things now are the people who grew up on video games and making their own way through narratives. And they see narratives in a non-linear way which is how this form exists. And the arrival of the internet that also allows a more fractured, networked way through things. And we share our own stories now, through Facebook and Twitter. I think people are bored of the traditional route of making performance. And companies like Punchdrunk, Shunt, Secret Cinema are giving people a language and a set of tools that they never knew they could have before. It has various levels of success.


ES: It’s been a year since the trial, how do you think your productions have evolved over that time?

J: Haha!


F: (interrupts) We self consciously after The Trial took some time to refine what our methodology was. We’ve spent this year undertaking residencies and doing internal thinking about how we make stuff, what approaches we have and everything from doing 6 weeks in the V&A doing an audio piece to spending the autumn with Shoreditch town hall making a theatrical party to cycling down the Balkan coast and trying to follow the journey of Odysseus… Kind of self-reflective things to try and work out really a solid plan for future.


ES: The Trial tapped into people’s underlying fears about paranoia and being spied on, about their personal lives being exposed – is there an underlying fear that you’ll be tapping into with Macbeth? Or is it something else?


F: Being corrupted by our own ambitions…


J: I think it was really interesting, The Trial, because we were talking about all these ideas about the internet and it had been gestating for a long time and then the whole internet spying thing blew up, and Edward Snowden came out. to a level we couldn’t have imagined.


F: ...and Edward Snowden’s story was exactly the story of The Trial.


ES: Are you sure you didn’t plan that..?


J: We were a bit worried that one of our fictions had become a reality… Those aren’t necessarily things that we’re directly trying to place a comment on, but they are ideas that we are interested in…


F: (interrupts) What excites me about Macbeth is that it can have so many geophysical comments, about Russia annexing the Crimea, Scottish independence and then also it has such a domestic dimension to it. We are very much concentrating on the claustrophobia of those types of relationships. You watch something like House of Cards and you see how domestic relationships have such a big ramification in terms of politics. And those are the kind of things we’re just touching on exploring now.


ES: How do you rehearse for immersive plays like Macbeth?

F:With the trial we just had plot points for each section and it was very much like we wanted the actors to improvise and to tease passive audience members into action and active audience members into passivity.


F: It was almost like we wanted them to leave in a psychological state – it was unscripted and we didn’t know how the audience was going to react, so all we could try and do was make sure they were going to be receptive to the next environment.


F: What’s really hard to rehearse is that half of the play is the audience and we don’t get them until the play starts. So much of it is about the psychological journey of the audience and how we get them to buy into what we’re doing and get them to have a personal imperative through the narrative. We want them to have status and have a role in the play. It’s almost impossible because every single person is different. That’s what we found with The Trial. The scale was massive. Macbeth will be a bit easier because it’s groups of 10, but then that group mob mentality is a lot harder to crack.


J: We’re not trying to crack our audience…


F: There won’t be any humiliation in there, I can guarantee.


ES: The whole immersive set up, and especially the way you do it, with people moving between places, and theatre mingling with street life, actually means that people aren’t living vicariously through the show on the stage but they’re actually experiencing it for themselves...


F: I think that’s interesting to talk about that idea of living vicariously and how there’s certain groups of audience members who’d see this type of theatre as thrill seeking. It’s really kind of difficult for us because our audience have lots of different types of expectations of what they think we’re going to be giving them.


J: It feels like we’ve got audiences who feel like they know immersive theatre and I think the reason it’s not that helpful a phrase it that it’s a cover-all for lots of different stuff.


F: It’s also something people tack onto their performance to sell lots of tickets…


ES: How much do you expect the audience to participate versus expecting things to come to them?


F: The way we approach it, we very much want people to react the way they do in normal social situations. It’s not Punchdrunk where you’re hidden behind a mask; it’s not You Me Bum Bum Train where you’re encouraged to perform; it’s not Shunt where all these mad things are happening around you and you can just have it wash over you. We want people to interact with our characters as you would interact with a King if they arrived, or a guard. But that’s all dependent on what role you give them.


ES: And what do you hope people will get out of Macbeth?


F: The action play stops at 1am, so we really want them to have an eight hour subconscious sequel to Macbeth in their mind as they sleep – that’s our aim. And allow that to haunt them for the rest of their lives…


J: We are interested in people coming to a play that feels whole and three dimensional. But we don’t know what’s going to happen... We want them to be thrilled, we don’t want them to be, you know, scared. And actually, for all Macbeth’s interesting conversations about power and this Godless world there is a sense that perhaps there is hope at the end and that…. We’re not completely nihilistic. We’re just interested in human beings in extreme situations I guess.


Rift's production of Macbeth begins on 20th June in secret location in East London.

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