It’s difficult to articulate my experience of Umbra, a production by Theatre With Teeth and Get Out Of My Space. In its simplest form, Umbra explores lust, love, temptation and possession by the devil through wordless physical theatre in an immersive environment. This ambitious piece, devised by Tobias Cornwell and James Hawley, was certainly an unforgettable experience.
Set in Politmore House, audiences had the freedom to wander through the house, with each room comprising of a different setting. The actors moved through the rooms, with numerous scenes unfolding simultaneously across the house. You would hear a scream, and dash to locate its source. You had the choice to follow a character who fled a room or remain to watch a character left alone with their grief or anguish. This freedom was an intriguing concept because it meant that each audience member had a unique experience of Umbra, depending on how they chose to move through the house. Its director, Tobias Cornwell, comments “there is no right or wrong way of experiencing it, just follow your heart.” In theory this seems exciting, but in reality, it was difficult to follow the narrative thread, and the physical theatre sometimes failed to clearly express the characters’ stories.
While we waited for Umbra to begin, we were handed pieces of paper which detailed the characters’ backgrounds. Their importance in understanding the plot was not emphasised enough, and it was also difficult to pin these descriptions to the physical actors. The sequence of events ran through twice, meaning that you technically had the chance to watch any scenes you had missed the first time when it started again. However, I still found myself missing key scenes, and the lack of chronology in which we viewed events reduced the impact of the developing action. The moment at which it began again should have been highlighted more clearly because I did not immediately notice that the scenes had begun to repeat. The experience would perhaps be improved if you were guided through the house or instructed to follow one character. This would allow audiences to watch how the plot built off this character and their connections with the other characters. A slightly smaller cast may also have benefited the narrative structure, because, as it was, there were characters whose stories I missed entirely. For example, I saw very little of the character Jethro (Roisin McCay). However, for other audience members, she may have been incredibly dominant in their experience of the plot. This can either be regarded as the beauty or the fault of Umbra. Everyone’s experience of the piece is unique, and thus your enjoyment of it will vary depending on whether or not you are content with only experiencing a portion of the narrative.
The stage team should be highly commended for the phenomenal attention to detail in the set. Audiences had the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the set, sitting or standing as they pleased, reading the letters scattered about the rooms and exploring the smaller props that made the set feel genuine. Smell was cleverly used for realism – for example the clinical smell in Jethro’s hospital-style room. All the audience members wore masks, allowing them to explore the environment in a way that did not feel too intrusive into the character’s world. The actors’ interactions with the audience cleverly integrated them into the performance, for instance taking an audience member by the hand and leading them to another room in an invitation to explore their story, or simply turning to the audience for a hug in a moment of intense grief and isolation from all others in their world. The cast’s timing was impeccable, managing to work around the audience that filled the space in a way that co-ordinated the climax of scenes with the build in the sound that filled the space.
The physical theatre was extremely well choreographed and powerfully portrayed by the talented cast. The scenes between Solomon (Jacob Hutchings) and Virgil (Sarah Sharp) were particularly impressive. They were incredibly fluid in their movements with each other and evoked such emotion in their interactions. This made the love triangle between Virgil, Solomona and Dante (Max Baker) the most tangible narrative thread, with conflicting love and jealousy powerfully portrayed in their motions. Some of the other physical theatre, however, while well-choreographed and enacted, felt like baseless violence without a clear context behind it.
Umbra is certainly a unique experience, not only in that everyone’s experience of it differs, but also because of the ambitious and singular nature of the concept itself. Despite some flaws, Umbra is certainly worth experiencing.
– By Katrina Bennett