Whilst I appreciate the sterling work Secret Cinema does, it is the “secret” part that tends to put me off. If I am to dedicate the best part of a day and a reasonably hefty ticket price, I would at least like to know what film I am seeing. As a result I am a big fan of Future Cinema‘s recent initiative to roll out their acclaimed production of The Shawshank Redemption to a wider audience. If the idea of an interactive theatrical experience themed around the film followed by a screening is appealing to you, please stop reading now and book tickets for February (when the run will probably end). Whilst the description below contains sizeable “spoilers” for potential attendees, it has been heavily enough covered by the press that I feel I am hardly spilling new information.
For those of you still reading, allow me to share a little of my spell behind bars. I will assume a certain level of familiarity with the film but suffice to say that Shawshank is the brutally disciplined fictional prison in which protagonist Andy Dufresne is imprisoned. Resurrected by Future Cinema as Oak Hampton State Prison, for several hours on Saturday Rav and I found ourselves similarly incarcerated.
Having followed the strict dress code, we arrived in suits shortly prior to the Court hearing in which we were sentenced in short order. My assigned alter ego, Ricky Kelley, was convicted of the illegal sale of medical drugs, and the tantalising opportunity for role playing was too hard to resist. As we were marched by abrasively insulting guards and boarded onto a bus, Ricky came together as a well-mannered kid, not too bright but street smart enough to take advantage of his friendship with a pharmacist to make a tidy bit of cash on the side. Being caught came as a shock, but his plan was to do his six years quietly and to go unnoticed as far as possible.
As we marched off the bus into the resurrected Shawshank prison — a former Huguenot hospital which had been meticulously redecorated with open wards turned into confined cell blocks — the intimidation began almost immediately from both guards and inmates. Inside, we were stripped down to the long johns we had been instructed to wear, and assigned our prison uniforms. After a freezing introduction to the prison, during which we witnessed briefly a brutal beating in the showers, we were locked in cells and able to dress. At first dutifully buttoning himself up neatly, Ricky soon began tweaking the outfit into what he hoped appeared more confidently casual: an unbuttoned jacket, upturned cuffs. The “library cards” we had purchased earlier came into play as the only means to purchase food and drink inside the joint. A hidden pocket sewn inside the jackets would prove particularly useful for concealing beer from the guards.
Soon afterwards, we were free to roam the prison interior, an atmospheric place with various themed rooms for work, recreation, education and medical treatment (Rav’s decision that his own character had syphilis was an amusing touch, the nurse noting she’d know who to come to if she discovered an outbreak). Roaming actors (as either guards or fellow inmates) would routinely “interfere” to provoke or to discipline, whilst impromptu set pieces would occur sporadically, and if nearby often one would find oneself carefully funnelled into an area shortly before one began. These often involved music but were as varied as a guard-endorsed brawl between two inmates whilst others crowded to watch and bet on the outcome (Ricky had a good eye for the winner in a fight but only liked to gamble with those he knew, for the apparent intelligence he believed his winning would demonstrate to them).
Whilst the parole board took a liking to the seemingly contrite and always polite Ricky (he never missed a “Sir” or “Ma’am”, though Rav later complained my ready-made Southern US accent was “cheating”), the infirmary staff were particularly unimpressed as soon as they saw papers indicating his crime. It turned out they were right to be suspicious as Ricky pretended to swallow his medication before quietly pocketing the pill. Never know when it might come in handy to trade. It seemed he had not really learned from being caught and, even on the inside, planned to use what skills he had to make his time more bearable.
As the evening drew to a close, a riot broke out with shots fired before everyone was herded into a gym whilst those in charge dealt with an escapee. This set up the film screening which, by this point, was almost superfluous to the experience itself. However, it is notable just how much of an impact the previous few hours had in this viewing. I watched Dufresne’s arrival through both his eyes and through Red’s (having watched a later batch of arrivals — fresher fish — enter wide-eyed whilst we roamed free). Brooks’s letter was far more moving having heard it read out in the chapel earlier, so that one knew the words as he spoke them. Red’s final appearance before the parole board raised a hearty cheer from the crowd, most having experienced a fake one already (with a similar certainty that the game was fixed). And sharing in the free suds Andy procured his fellow workers was certainly a nice touch!
The result was more a themed experience than a film screening, and one that grew in quality the more “audience” members were willing to interact with the actors. Indeed, had I known his charge in advance, in some ways it would have been nice to prepare Ricky in advance rather than on the fly. I chose not to take a camera and am glad as it would likely have limited the immersion, but for those interested there is a decent set of photos from the Secret Cinema run. I am intrigued to see how seamlessly this larger-scale experience can translate to other films where perhaps the location is less confined, but I think the real key is evoking the atmosphere rather than the detail of the films. At least on the basis of this and last year’s La Haine, atmosphere appears to be Future Cinema’s forte, so I look forward to their next endeavour and cannot recommend highly enough that you attend.