The year is 1890 and the engagement of gentlemanly Melbourne chemist Edward Naismith (Stuart Duffield) to beautiful heiress Jane Adair (Kathryn Tohill), is about to go terribly wrong. You’re invited to watch it all unravel in intimate detail in the highly satisfying Mr Naismith’s Secret.
The latest from TBC Theatre is a tour de force of interactive theatre. It is performed in the historical Gate Lodge at Melbourne General Cemetery, turning the Lodge – an intriguing setting in its own right, and one rarely open to the public – into a living stage. Audience are welcomed in as “guests” for the engagement party and once inside, you are free to explore the space as you will. The characters, an upstairs-downstairs assortment of gentlefolk and servants, all move around the house following their own storylines and which parts of the story you see depends on where you choose to go and which character(s) you choose to follow. You might join the polite conversation in the dining room, or eavesdrop on gossip in the kitchen, or bear witness to a secret liaison in an upstairs room.
Sometimes the actors draw audience into the action, interacting with them as guests, other times you get to be a fly-on-the-wall and observe private moments as if invisible. With an air of unfolding mystery and a gradual buildup of dramatic intensity, the experience is utterly engrossing from beginning to end. There is never a shortage of things to pique your interest, questions you want answered, characters you want to know about, secrets you want to uncover. Even simply exploring the Lodge, evocatively lit and dressed with touches of period detail, is rewarding.
I find myself tailing characters and hunting for clues and exchanging information with other excited audience members as we each pursue our own quest of discovery. There is a delight in sharing the experience but also something special about the times I find myself the only audience member witnessing a scene, receiving in effect a private show, a gifted moment. The location too, a beautiful historic home literally inside a graveyard, makes this a unique and suitably eerie experience.
TBC have made use of historical settings before – their last show Shadows of Angels was performed in Old Melbourne Gaol – and many of the cast have experience with popular performance installation series Underground Cinema. As a piece of truly immersive art, however, Mr Naismith’s Secret breaks new ground. It is intricately plotted and engagingly performed, with the actors slipping deftly back and forth between their script and improvised interaction with the audience. Writer Clare Callow in fact used improvised scenes among the actors to inform her writing process. At the start of rehearsals, cast members were given only the information their characters would know and their own improvised journeys of discovery helped shape the script. The result is a piece which flows impressively smoothly for something so tangled in plot.
Inevitably there are more mysteries afoot than can possibly be revealed in a single viewing, but the parallel heightening of drama in all story threads and the artful way they all draw together to a unified finale ensures a powerful dramatic arc whichever character(s) you have chosen to follow. Having watched it once, you almost immediately want to watch it again, thinking of the different threads you might pursue. It feels like a very special thing to be part of as an audience member.
Innovative in concept and slick in execution, Mr Naismith’s Secret is an experience unlike any other.
TBC Theatre presents
Mr Naismith’s Secret
written by H. Clare Callow | devised by TBC Theatre
Directed by Leighton Phair
Venue: The Gate Lodge, Melbourne General Cemetery
Dates: 25 October – 13 November 2016
Tickets: $35 ($28 concession)
Bookings: www.tbctheatre.com/mr-naismiths-secret.html | 0410 147 988
*as this is a moved performance in an historical venue audience members are requested to wear flat-soled shoes