Interview: Anna Morell speaks to Jem Wall, Artistic Director of Hydrocracker about the immersive theatre experience Operation Black Antler

Operation Black Antler

You are an undercover Police Officer, and your job for the next 90 minutes is to infiltrate a group of political extremists. It’s all very low key. All very Average Joe. You’ve got a back story. But now you’ve got to get their story. What will you do to get it? Where and how far will you go? Will you go against them or against what you stand for? Are you for, or against, the State?

This is immersive theatre, where the audience is a part of the play. Where play becomes active. You can’t sit and watch this – you are this.

In the wake of media scrutiny of deep cover policing methods used over the past few decades in the UK, where people have been in long-term relationships with and even had children by people working under deep cover, Operation Black Antler premiered in Brighton last month to rave reviews from The Stage and The Guardian.

This month, Operation Black Antler is coming to Chatham for five nights. Funded by Ideas Test, the piece was created by interactive media specialists, Blast Theory, and the immersive theatre company, Hydrocracker.

I spoke to Jem Wall, Artistic Director of Hydrocracker about what this groundbreaking piece of theatre hopes to achieve. “We’re asking the audience to examine their attitude toward surveillance. How far are they prepared for our state to go in order to keep us safe? Surveillance is a very polite word, but I hope this will give people an understanding of what we mean by surveillance: deceiving, lying, living under a fake ID – is it worth it to keep us safe from the threats that surround us? It raises some really interesting questions about identity. Feedback from the production in Brighton has been about how easy it is to change your identity – how powerful that is. How it can be both exciting and very disturbing.

“The play is about power in a number of ways. It’s giving the power to the audience to make moral or ethical decisions and then reflect on them. It’s that old question: who guards the guards? We’re not telling the audience what to think, they’re experiencing it.

“I’m very interested by the word ‘PLAY’. I think we understand the world, and make sense of it, by playing – that goes for adults as well as children. We call this a play, but it’s a very serious play.

“Lines and relationships are blurred. Some of the cast are actors, but some are not. The play is reimagined every night by the audience. Half the cast is the audience, so it’s a different script every night. We only get to meet half the cast on the night, every night.”

Ultimately, the play is a deep and innovative, accessible and clever exploration of lies, fears, politics, shape shifting, community and human connection. But, like the fictive operation’s code name, it’s potentially very dark, very barbed and maybe even deadly.

Read our review of Operation Black Antler.