Jonnie Riordan, Jess Williams and Ben Walden
A Matchbox Production for ThickSkin Theatre Co
Oldham Coliseum (streamed)
March 1-7, 2021: 30min
Part artistic experience, part computer game; Petrichor is one of Oldham Coliseum’s first excursions into online theatre, courtesy of ThickSkin Productions, with support from various theatres.
The show was to have been - virus permitting, which it didn’t - a live experience late last year at the Coliseum, though having now seen it, I’m not sure it would have been a particularly worthwhile trek, even in non-pandemic times.
Travelling to the theatre and spending little more than half an hour wearing a virtual reality headset, completely divorced from the people around me, wouldn’t have elevated the experience much above the one I had, sitting and standing at home, watching with tablet and headphones. Petrichor was clearly born to be experienced without great effort.
Artistically, Petrichor is a fairly uneventful experience. First thing to note is that is is not drama but dance-drama; performers Dominic Coffey and Ayesha Fazal offer dialogue-free movement choreographed to images and text projected on the four-wall screen that surrounds them, and a suitably expressionless voiceover.
The story is the familiar one of every Dystopian scenario: drone workers are supposed to be grateful that they have been removed from some hellish outside existence in which they had to think for themselves. Now they work, eat and sleep on a strict schedule in Petrichor, and have no other responsibilities than to function without human contact – which if nothing else is a ripe metaphor for the past year. The climax comes, naturally, as a touch between the two of them sparks all sorts of rebellious feelings and breaks them free to return to greater self-determination.
The absence of dialogue means that for the most part the pair move gracefully, or not so gracefully, around the confines of their box, the occasional prop magically appearing and disappearing as only film can permit. Half an hour is certainly long enough to tell the wordless story.
But the show is certainly more interesting technically. It is more expansive than TV, in that it has been shot in a VR space that permits the viewer to turn and watch to the side and behind, and has a similarly immersive sound and voice track that points your attention to the focal point (which visually isn’t always easy to determine, since there are often two people moving round the space and, as in real life, it takes a moment to decide which to watch).
The projections are much as we have come to expect from companies such as imitating the dog; a mix of graphic figures and scenes and repeating, ordered patterns, with text and welcome diversions drawn from real life, such as falling raindrops. The only downside is that if you are holding a tablet device, it has to be up level with your eyeline throughout; rest it on your knees and all you will see is the floor of the set…
An interesting small-scale experiment then (as opposed to the forthcoming, grand RSC production that mixes a graphic setting with a moving, motion-captured cast). Petrichor might be a little obvious in inspiration but technically has a lot going for it. It reassures anyone interested in theatre, however, that this is a niche genre of its own.
This is not the future of post-Covid theatre; live theatre is.