Immersive theatre is all about pushing boundaries, and few theatre companies push them harder or further than Swamp Motel. From their groundbreaking The Drop, set (almost) entirely in a broken lift, to their dual timeline lockdown film The Alter, they have repeatedly challenged and stretched their audiences.
In Saint Jude, you play a trainee ‘guidestar’, tasked with conversing with coma patients – ‘sleepers’, in the expanding lexicon of the Saint Jude organisation. Your job, explained in a briefing session, is to probe the sleeper’s mind, cajoling them into revealing as much as possible about their state of mind, their imagined whereabouts and their intended virtual actions.
After the briefing you’re led to your seat in a glass-walled booth, one of just 20 in the facility. On the desk in front of you is a microphone, a lamp and a keyboard connected to an ‘Echo Sump’ – a small, wide LED screen on which you see the brain patterns of your sleeper. The sleeper’s thoughts are, you’ve been told, translated into speech by the Echo Sump, which in turn translates your spoken voice and typed words into brainwaves that are fed back to the sleeper. The only other ornamentation is a small Japanese sand garden, complete with rake.
It’s a curious experience, sitting alone wearing headphones, talking to a disembodied voice while trying to probe its secrets. Much of the process is routine and exploratory, as you gradually discover more about your sleeper. Along the way you’ve been encouraged to type points of interest into the Echo Sump and print them out on long strips of paper resembling till receipts, which are gathered at regular intervals by the mysterious Stefan, your initiator – a sinister Bryan Moriarty – who now prowls the perimeter of the booth like an exam invigilator.
The voice you’re talking to is, in fact, computer generated. An AI company called Charisma built the tech that allows your voiced questions to be interpreted, and appropriate answers generated in the form of speech. It’s slickly done, with Swamp Motel’s customary attention to detailed set design backing up a wholly convincing AI conversation.
Of course, the AI is programmed with preplanned responses, and although you do have the ability to make choices as you direct the actions – look out of the window, look at the dressing table – you’re actually being railroaded down a predetermined path that gradually unfolds the story in which you have been immersed.
It’s a near-perfect technical achievement, and you’ll find yourself being drawn into the narrative even though you know it’s AI driven. Whether it works as a theatrical experience, however, is another question. Sitting alone at a microphone interacting with a computer won’t be everyone’s idea of a good night out, and there are times in the hour-long experience when momentum is lost and the interaction seems to drag. The denouement, when it comes, is both unexpected and genuinely pulse-racing; but overall there’s too much verbiage and not enough action.
Saint Jude is innovative, at times challenging, and certainly unlike any theatrical events you’ll have experienced before. You’ll leave it with a sense of accomplishment and triumph, even if at times the journey strays into tedium.
Written by: Ollie Jones, Clem Garrity, Sadie Spencer, Zoe Roberts, Tara Boland
Set design: Clem Garrity
Producer: Will Herman
Saint Jude is Booking until 23 April 2023. Further information can be found here.