We’re now a few days removed from Cruelty and layers continue to reveal themselves as we dwell on what we encountered during those 45 mins. It’s a show that’s given us plenty to consider and our pervading thoughts are… conflicted.
Not with the quality of the show, mind, but with ourselves and what we did during its runtime.
But we’ll get to that.
Cruelty is the latest show produced by Faceless Ventures, this time in collaboration with Mikey Stuart – better known as Mikey from Scaretrack. The immediate observation that swirled around in our heads as we headed back up those basement stairs was that Faceless Ventures are incredibly savvy when it comes to teaming up with other creatives. It worked fantastically in Interieur and, we’re happy to say that similar results were achieved with Cruelty.
So, just what the hell was Cruelty? This is the first time that we’ve been seated in a single position for the entire duration of a Faceless Ventures show so you could label this closer to straight theatre than anything else that we’ve seen of theirs. But, bizarrely, in many ways, it was more immersive.
Sat in a very intimate space, we are introduced to The Ringmaster (Mikey himself) and his timid but compliant assistant. The Ringmaster has a particular issue with social media and over the next 45 minutes, delivers a theatrical piece with the intent of demonstrating how detrimental our digital lives are to our physical existence.
The format of the show, whilst distinct in its own right, had a strong Urban Death vibe to it. Readers of this site will know how much we love that show (reviews here and here) and Cruelty definitely echoed many things that we adore about the Zombie Joe productions whilst still managing to stand on its own two feet. Both events consist of a series of smaller scenes but where Urban Death’s were all self-contained, the Cruelty vignettes were mostly repeating but with an escalating intensity on each reappearance. The other common product to both shows was the handling of real-world issues but with Cruelty picking one particular subject and taking a deeper dive.
And that’s where Urban Death and Cruelty diverge spectacularly. Where Urban Death is a wholly passive experience (the main body of the show anyway), Cruelty very much acknowledged the audience and involved them to a degree that I’m still unpeeling the scale of.
Though Cruelty tackled many aspects of society’s ties to virtual socialisation, it mostly landed on the concept of anonymity and how it can function as a breeding ground for negativity and hate. The idea that we’re somewhat divorced from our actions because we’re physically removed from their impact. What followed made me uncomfortable in the best kind of way.
Recalling that scene in Interieur which was engineered to pit me against myself, Cruelty asked us to do certain things that I’m not particularly proud of and, on reflection, I realise that the point that the show was making ran a lot deeper than I initially concluded.
This is best demonstrated by one of the scenes – the detail of which I will leave away from here for you to discover should it resurface. Essentially, we were instructed to verbally engage with certain characters throughout our time in Cruelty. Predictably, as the show progressed, the nature of the interactions took on a darker and more offensive bent. And the result of that is twofold.
Firstly, yes, everyone in the show is acting a part but we are still speaking to human beings and it doesn’t feel good to be disrespectful of anyone. This sounds bad but was entirely the point of the show. People actually do this, shielded from the fallout by their electronic devices. Here, we had nowhere to go, no escape from what we said to these characters. It wasn’t fun at all and what a successful application of an immersive media Cruelty was to have guests experience that first hand rather than via a news article.
But then a creeping thought kept eating away at me. That was only half the intent, or at least there was more to this that was causing me unrest. And I eventually managed to put a finger on it. No-one was really forcing me to say those things, they obviously couldn’t. Whilst The Ringmaster was very insistent at times, he couldn’t make me say what I said. I chose to say them due to peer pressure. I was in a show with other participants, the creator of the show placing his hands on my shoulders near yelling at me to act. Placating him appeared to be the path of least resistance. To pass the focus away from me and onto another audience member. And I’m disappointed in a sense that I actually went along with it, I clearly felt uneasy doing it, so why did I? The stress of that environment. To me, it crystallised how slipping into a disagreeable position can sometimes be easier than doing the right thing. And certainly, everyone in our group fully went along with it. If one of us had refused, would that have encouraged the rest? Maybe. But no-one did. We all bowed to The Ringmaster’s demands.
There are very few shows that I come away from that still rattle around in my mind a couple of days later. I didn’t expect to be as involved in the performance as we were and just how much weight those few, slight moments of interaction carried. Cruelty was simply a clever and rewarding experience that delivered more introspection than the surface chaos of the 45 mins suggested.
Now, that said, we do have to mention the one thing that we felt was missing from Cruelty and this directly involves the ending so the next four paragraphs will contain spoilers.
*** Spoilers begin ***
In the finale of the show, The Ringmaster pushes his agenda a little too hard, resulting in a rebellion of his cast who leave him to our mercy. Eight responses are presented to us, we can each pick one and enact it. As you can probably guess, half of these choices were tipping towards aggressive with the remainder being peaceful, encouraging actions. This in itself was a great idea. We’d been coerced into being offensive to others by The Ringmaster, we watched him abuse and objectify people. Now we could turn the tables.
I was the first one to choose, selecting something positive. This was an immediate decision and an easy one to justify. Despite all that went on, doing something ‘bad’ to this character in a misguided attempt at retribution would just be proving him right. It’s probably the decision he’d want us to make, validating everything he’d done over the previous near-hour. In my mind, it was important to show him that, actually, we can break these cycles and that the world isn’t full of hate.
I felt somewhat redeemed by showing The Ringmaster forgiveness but had a nagging sense that I was missing an epilogue. Because we all chose to offer this character mercy. I can’t answer for everyone else but definitely, for me, this was about demonstrating that there was another way. What I would’ve loved to have seen was the impact of what we had decided on The Ringmaster and his band of performers. Did we affect change? Or had we just afforded him the freedom to continue on his path and potentially do worse as a result? How devastating would that have been?!? I don’t know what our decision led to but I would be so interested to know!
Or was it all just a part of the ‘show’?
*** Spoilers End ***
It’s rare that an event can so succinctly make us feel their intentions. I truly didn’t expect what appeared to be a fairly passive show to deliver a stronger impact than most full-blooded immersive events do. And, I need to stress that though I speak of being offensive towards others and such, it really wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t much worse than your average scream park butcher making
Cruelty - Faceless Ventures x Mikey Stuart
+ Unique concept
+ Game cast
+ Confronting and thought-provoking
- Ending lacked some closure
Cruelty was a brilliant piece of immersive theatre through and through. We were surprisingly affected by what unfolded during our time in there, proving to be another successful collaboration that Faceless Ventures have embarked upon.
Ticket Price: £30
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