Anyone walking past the Tower of London is probably unaware of the Tower Vaults, a huge underground cellarage on three levels, all that remains of the huge Mazawattee Tea Warehouse, bombed in World War Two. But from now it will become known as the home of London’s most sophisticated and state-of-the-art immersive theatre experience, ‘The Gunpowder Plot.’ We have the chance to relive 5th November 1605 right next to the Tower of London where several of the key events took place.
The company responsible for this venture is ‘Layered Reality’, and that is exactly what we get in a wholly engrossing show that should appeal to all ages with its combination of live acting, CGI, and creation of a holistic sensory experience. We begin with a brief exposition of the religious and social divides of Jacobean England before being rushed by an actor into a sequence of dimly-lit passages and stairways. We meet a Catholic recusant in the Tower of London, from which we don cloaks and ‘escape’ into the clutches of a government spy-master. I don’t want to introduce too many spoilers but by giving us the chance to be spies inside the plot the experience can be admirably even-handed in putting both sides of the moral equation in front of us. We are then left in the interval in the ‘Duck & Drake’ pub, alongside various masked plotters lurking in the shadows, to debate which side to take. Should we support the radical and murderous plan of the persecuted Catholics to blow up the political elite at the State Opening of Parliament? Or should we turn double-agents and inform the authorities? The state of current politics made this perhaps more of an open question than it might otherwise have been!
A lot of careful thought, together with expert collaboration with Historic Royal Palaces had ensured that the historical framework is correct and elaborately detailed. This was especially to the fore to in two magical CGI sequences that took us over the rooftops of London in 1605 and along the river in a rowboat, helping to transport the last consignment of gunpowder from the Tower of London to Parliament. Here the all-enveloping special effects were both thrilling and truly revealing of the feel of an early modern city.
But it is the traditional live acting rather than the special effects that are key to making the whole experience work. We got to feel the urgency and tensions of the situation and the sheer political complexity of a world where it is impossible to know who to trust. We also felt and empathised with the sufferings and pains of those prepared to risk all for their faith. A beautifully recreated domestic interior became the setting for a military raid where we experienced what it was like to hide silently behind the panelling in a claustrophobic and wholly dark priest hole. Balancing that we were also made to feel what the explosion and its consequences might be like, complete with detonations and haze.
At the climax in the vaults underneath Parliament (still searched to this day ahead of the annual State Opening) we were present at the heart of the action and its aftermath. A final section giving the later history of the mythology and celebrations of Gay Fawkes was perhaps a little less successful, with some glitches in the virtual reality masks and a natural dissipation of tension and suspense. But this does not seriously detract from a wonderfully absorbing and enthralling experience.
Among the actor-avatars Tom Felton stood out as Guy Fawkes, both passionate and chillingly calculating; and across the live cast special credits should go to Liam Ballantyne as our guide, Thomas and those bringing to life Lady Cecil, Father Glanville and his helper, Ann. The fights were compelling and urgent and the dialogue was both informative and plausible. Some seventeenth-century language was used – including swear words – not much change to report there! – but without any obscurity or hokey quaintness. All-in-all director Hannah Price and writer Danny Robins have breathed new life into an old tale and used the newest technology in the service of the drama rather than for mere showy effects.