The Roof should really have everything going for it. It’s a new work of “immersive theatre” from David Rosenberg and Frauke Requardt, a splinter group from the celebrated Shunt theatre collective. It’s based in a thrown-together “pop-up” style arena, which incorporates a scruffy-looking but pricey bar in a cargo container. For bonus hipster points, it is even based around recreating the feel of classic video games. This last one might be what keeps the show from being the toast of London’s more fashionable critics, however – not because it fails, but because it succeeds too well.
We stand in the middle of a circular rooftop obstacle course – chimneys, aerials and windows all as obviously fake as the alleys on Sesame Street. A prominent billboard seems to be pixelating into thin air, suggesting that the world is so fake it is barely even holding together. The inhabitants of this world are divided roughly into jump-suited players, and the monsters programmed to attack them.
Each audience member wears a set of headphones, through which music, voices and sound effects are all carried – a brilliant device which Rosenberg and Requardt have used in their previous shows. Here they use it for one purpose in particular, attaching us to a particular character – fixing our soundscape to his actions and immediate surroundings, encouraging us to project ourselves into him. We are playing a game, and we are playing it through him.
Another advantage is that this cuts you off completely from the distractions of the audience around you. In a masterstroke, Rosenberg and Requardt give you a new, artificial audience to replace the real one – we hear invisible patrons all around us cough, shout aggressively, laugh and join in with the action.
Our hero isn’t Player 1. He’s not even Player 2 or 3. He is Player 611. As his game begins, this anonymous drone fumbles to learn the basic rules of his environment in a way which will be immediately familiar to gamers. Danilo Caruso manages to capture perfectly the mechanics of primitive game characters, with the stiffness and precision of a puppet on a string.
Accidentally leaping down pits, stumbling into walls, and swinging punches into thin air, our hapless avatar is forced to learn the way we always do, in games from Space Invaders to Tomb Raider – through grinding repetition, and numerous wasted deaths.
Alongside this, we occasionally glimpse the parallel struggles of Player 1 himself (Si Rawlinson), who is a stark contrast. He moves like a human being, leaping and clambering gracefully around the course with a fluidity of motion that escapes 611. The difference between the two players is so stark that they seem less like two players of the same game, and more like characters from different eras of gaming history. If 611 is the original Prince of Persia, from 1989, then Player 1 is his modern, fully articulated counterpart. This parallel even extends to the luxurious mane of hair Rawlinson sports, as opposed to the anonymous crash-test dummy skullcap worn by Caruso. If Player 1 wishes he can strip his jumpsuit around his waist, showing off an action-hero vest.
The great thing about their performances is that Player 1’s movements still register as scripted and artificial. In one scene he gets stuck in the kind of “lag” loop that results from a disrupted internet connection – repeatedly hoisting himself off the floor and slamming back down, in response to punches which have stopped coming.
611 progresses through the levels of his game, each of which is essentially identical to the last. He navigates the same course, moving anti-clockwise. He kills monsters and is rewarded with points, in the form of inflatable ducklings. He escapes through a glowing portal, and then reappears from the same trapdoor on the opposite side. One of the most skilful parts of the show’s performances is how the actors manage to vanish and emerge at different points, traversing hidden tunnels within the set.
As his progression leads only to an endless cycle of repetition, our hero starts to lose the will to carry on. As he evolves to more closely resemble Player 1, moving and killing with a new confidence and skill, he loses all sense of individuality – even pausing during his first action montage to shout “I – AM – ME”. The point is rammed home by the giant scoreboard which records his progress. As the level number rises, so does a stat labelled simply “Status”. Although it keeps on going up, entering the double digits, this number has no frame of reference whatsoever, and is utterly meaningless. Our hero is “progressing,” but towards what? Where does it end?
He attempts to create meaning focus on another Player – number 53 (played by Janina Rajakangas). Mysteriously, 53 seems to be rooted into the world of the game, operating a shop which keeps the other players supplied with weaponry and health top-ups. Her position – dancing against a pane of glass, separated from the course itself – naturally suggests her as the archetypal “princess in the tower,” in need of rescuing.
At one point 611 tries to bend the game to his will, refusing to enter the glowing portal which leads to the next level. He breaks 53 out of her apparent prison, leading her to the roof for a stolen moment of intimacy – but she does not respond, even when he lifts her arm around his shoulders. Later he manages a kiss, which she mechanically permits, but without a flicker of actual emotion. It seems as though she simply is not programmed to register his attention – even if she did require rescuing, she only has eyes for Player 1, whose framed picture decorates the wall of her shop, and who she responds to with the same animated energy which characterises him.
At times Player 1 seems like a perfect version of our own hero: what he might evolve into, if he can survive long enough. Really though he represents the polar opposite – he embodies an unquestioning acceptance of progression for its own sake. This spirit is directly stated during the show’s opening monologue, in the form of a quote from Bruce Lee: “Man must constantly exceed his level. If you are not better than you were the day before, then what are you doing? What’s the point?”. The play could easily feel like a criticism of that sentiment.
Yet, as things go on, its status comes to feel more ambiguous. Player 1 is no villain, but selflessly goes out of his way to help 611 on several occasions. At one point he literally drags him out of harms way, so that Player 53 can bring him back from the brink of a GAME OVER screen.
Our “hero,” by contrast, only becomes more rooted in a selfish desperation as time drags on. When he is in the same position, an encounters inexperienced “newbie” players who threaten to supplant him, he watches them fall prey to the same mistakes he himself made, with cold impatience – even casually pushing one to his death.
This suggests that, in the play’s philosophy, neither of the extremes our characters represent is entirely desirable. If we devote ourselves entirely to progression and advancement for their own sake, we risk losing ourselves to a mindless, endless grind. But without at least some of that basic drive and sense of purpose, we risk losing ourselves in a different way – to despair and nihilism. At the finale, both of these calamities are allowed to play out.
Having given up on his dream of agency, 611 pulls something out of his mouth – a blob of organic matter. Like the pods in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), it seems to represent his connection to the game world – the means by which we have plugged ourselves into his perspective. Discarding it, he throws himself calmly to his final death without hesitation. We feel a genuine lurch as one of the game’s anonymous monsters picks up his discarded blob of matter and, suddenly, becomes our new avatar. We follows him instead, hearing the foosteps and sounds which surround him.
In the end, even after his death, Player 1 saves 611 again – defeating the monster and salvaging his connection blob. This he delivers to Player 53, before immediately leaving to continue his endless, mindless progression towards nothing. She cradles it like a baby, whispering “Hello?” as if the cycle of life is complete.
The Roof is not for everyone, unfortunately. It’s not often I get to be snobbish about computer games but, without at least some level of literacy in the medium which has defined my generation more than any other, a lot of its nuances will be lost on you. However, regardless of your level in that particular scoring system, there is more than enough else to keep you entertained. If you have any interest in innovative theatre, ingenious audio design, and really spectacular physical performance, you would do well to book a ticket as soon as possible, before it uses up its lives and disappears.