Experiences For Sale
I remember early trips to the London Dungeon, especially when they had the terrifying Jabberwocky (a gigantic puppet used in the Terry Gilliam film) snarling inside a cave. It was a peculiar, vaguely disreputable experience that always felt a little unpredictable and dangerous – sadly now replaced with a tamer tourist attraction.
I thought that the word ‘experience’ had taken on a new meaning in our modern marketing-obsessed world, but a quick study of London attractions traces it back a couple of hundred years to the panoramas, automatas and sensation exhibitions of the West End.
I just discovered that the ‘Body Worlds’ exhibition of Gunther Von Hagens, in which he uses plastination techniques to strip the layers of skin and muscle from human beings and animals, is currently still running in the West End.
I suppose we should blame Secret Cinema for kicking off the latest incarnation. Having actors dress as film characters and act out scenes in front of you became quite a thing for a while. I remember the police closing St Martin’s Lane to restage the motorcycle chase sequence from ‘Diva’ some years back, and the retrofitting of the Odeon Haymarket to resemble the wartime launch of ‘Brief Encounter’.
Punchdrunk is in danger of losing its core audience after staging a series of incomprehensible, overpriced mime and dance shows in events spaces. Confused friends and critics have not been kind about their most recent venture, ‘Troy’, now retitled ‘The Burnt City’, which has all their hallmarks; sensational set-pieces linked by endless murky rooms.
But there are plenty of other ‘experiences’ to be had, including a Van Gogh experience – gaudy projections and piped music, essentially – and a Frida Kahlo experience, colours and costumes. These events are not publicly funded arts but for-profit companies reductively commodifying artists into brands.
The latest of these is ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ beside the Tower of London, featuring earnest young actors playing Guido and his pals as the Catholics plot to assassinate King James. It’s basically ‘The Crystal Maze’, which involves a cheesy script, a lot of plodding down vault corridors and solving cyphers to get secret passwords. At one point I was shut inside a cupboard and wondered, ‘I’m paying for this?’
But it does have one good trick up its sleeve.
There are four virtual reality headset adventures in the show, one of which takes you high above London into the night sky for a ravens’ eye view of the city, while another places you in a (rocking) boat on the Thames at night, sailing perilously close to the arches of London Bridge.
As someone who spent quite a long time researching London Bridge and its environs, I can testify to the accuracy of this vast 360 degree image, which genuinely takes the breathe away. It’s the first time I’ve had any sense of scale on the bridge. Possibly the height and scale are exaggerated, but the sensation of being in its presence is enthralling. Just try to overlook the am-dram antics that surround it.