Situation In Brief: Secret Cinema started out in London in 2007 as a sort of beefed-up movie screening, like fan showings of Rocky Horror Picture Show, gradually becoming full-on theatrical experiences with that juicy, juicy audience immersion as bait on the hook. They've held multiple shows in the past based on many movies, including Blade Runner, Star Wars and Dirty Dancing. In April 2019, they announced they'd be coming to Shanghai. They're here! They're currently doing nightly showings from Wed-Sun, with matinee showings on the weekend. Tickets to Secret Cinema: Casino Royale are available over on SmartTicket.cn starting at 788rmb.
The first Shanghai experience is a rerun of Secret Cinema's hugely successful London show from earlier this year, based on Casino Royale, the prequel that modernized the sexist, misogynist relic of the Cold War and made him blonde. Up to 2,000 (reportedly!!) audience members, can spend around two hours milling about across three floors of reimagined locales from the film, exchanging stern looks and codewords with actors, tailing marks through the crowd and losing (fake) money at the poker table, before sitting down to watch the film in its entirety as cast enact or augment the film in the aisles and in front of the screen.
So, is it as good as Sleep No More, the other, huge immersive foreign theater production in collaboration with Shanghai Media Group (SMG)?
Invalid comparison, it turns out. They're two different genres. Sleep No More is immersive theater. Secret Cinema is Live Action Role Play.
If you don't want any spoilers, read no further.
(Phones and cameras are strictly forbidden. Photos courtesy of Secret Cinema's London performance of Casino Royale. Also, if you haven't seen the film, you're not going to recognize most of what I'm about to talk about.)
The Secret Agent Experience
They had me log into a web portal days before the show, where a questionnaire (in Chinese) assigned me a team color and let me build my alias. Well, it let me pick a profession and a name. These are guidelines for your cosplay. Don't sweat it. It plays almost no role in your experience. In fact, how good your experience is will depend largely on how much effort you it.
The LARPing began as soon as I stepped out of the metro station, where I was addressed as "the new operative." Abort! Code Black! We've been compromised!
Luckily, they weren't interested in attaching a car battery to my privates. They pointed me to the venue, some transformed warehousing containing three floors of James Bondage.
I entered through Madagascar, where men in suits scurried through the bazaar crowds and down darkened alleys to meet with other men in suits carrying briefcases. An excellent stand-in for the bomb-maker played by Sébastien Foucan in the movie parkoured across the sets above me. A shady individual in a tailored suit pointed out another man in a vest and asked me to find out what he was doing in Madagascar. Turns out the man in the vest was a double 0 agent, and he sent me back to find out what the first suit was doing in Madagascar. With superior tradecraft, and my wandering attention span, the mark lost me in the crowds, and I ended up in in a three-floor airport lobby, where main baddy Le Chiffre muscled his way past me on the escalator carrying a briefcase. I managed to sneak into the secret headquarters of MI6's Q Branch with a group of guests who'd figured out the codeword, where agents tracked men and women in suits on surveillance cameras, looking for the ones carrying briefcases.
Lot of suits and briefcases that night, come to think about it.
After I precipitated a choreographed arrest by asking the wrong question, I somehow ended up at the Casino Royale itself, a lush, cavernous red room with a live band, a long bar and poker tables scattered about. On a raised dais in the center was the VIP table, where some pretty good body doubles for the poker players in the climax of the film played cards. Unless the press pictures from Secret Cinema are mislabelled, the actual cast from the London show is here in Shanghai. Much of the interaction throughout the show was in English. Much of it concerned briefcases.
The evening culminated in drama, action, a daring escape and a twist ending on the casino floor itself, before the entire crowd of LARPers was funneled into a huge, custom-built cinema to watch all two and a half hours of Casino Royale.
This is the second "immersive theater" production by SMG, after Sleep No More, but like I said, I don't think the comparison's fair. In Sleep No More, the audience experiences, voyeuristically, a performance. The occasional bit of audience interaction is a bonus. In Secret Cinema, audience interaction is the experience. If the audience sucks, there's only so much the actors can do to make the experience fun.
I'm a little baffled by the choice of subject, though. For Secret Cinema's first, exploratory foray into a new market, the world of James Bond was probably pretty easy to build. It looks and behaves the same as ours, though from what I can tell, Shanghai's missing several portions that London had. It's just not very interesting.
The James Bond fantasy is being the lone agent, exchanging sexual innuendo and gunfire with clever, deadly people. The wolf among the sheep. Problem is, we're going as the audience. We're the sheep. James Bond never has to repeat himself because you couldn't hear him over the music, or because you got distracted, or misunderstood a code phrase. We end up looking like a bunch of sheep in wolf's clothing.
Also, if you think about it, isn't it weird to build an immersive social experience around a world where, if you think about it, the best LARPer wouldn't be interested in working with anyone else?
The Secret Cinema actors are at their very best when dealing with each other and not having to rope in the audience. They still do a phenomenal job encouraging audience members to follow them as they arrest another actor, but there's not really much else for them to work with when they're not allowed to get into shoot-outs or sexual innuendo with the audience.
Some Tips For Making The Most Of The Show
1. Go in small groups. Big groups will inevitably get separated as you wander around, so work in small groups, three or four at most. Something or someone might grab one person's attention and being able to follow some moment of spontaneity, like a lady yelling she's with the CIA and you need to come with her, is crucial.
2. Don't get FOMO. Your first instinct will be to run around see everything at once, in case you'll miss out on something. Two hours is not enough time to experience the whole thing. If you chase everything, you'll see nothing. Relax. Take a ten-minute walk around to familiarize yourself with the space at a broad stroke, then pick an area you like and get involved with the actors and audience there. It's important that you...
3. Make Your Own Fun. Don't rely on the actors to make the experience for you, because they don't have time to keep you entertained for two hours. The best part of the evening was when my colleague bumped into someone we thought was a cast member, but just turned out to be a super invested audience member. At one point, another guest came up to him and surreptitiously handed him an envelope. What was in it? No idea! They just coordinated that for our benefit! Amazing.
4. Staying for the movie is optional. It is two and a half hours long, after you've already spent two hours running around. But if you do decide to stay, try and grab seats as close to the front as possible so you can see the supplementary action.
5. Dress Up. You're paying nearly 800rmb to pretend to be a spy. Go ape. Get a cravat and a blue suede suit, baby, you're part of the experience. Also, if you do well enough there's the possibility that you will be mistaken for a cast member, which is an absolute riot and rife with possibilities for a groovy night out.
It's early days, so hopefully they'll get better with more experience and chances to refine the experience (boy, really used the word 'experience' a lot in this article), maybe brush up some of the rougher portions of the set (Venice feels a little barren), come up with some more interesting audience interactions that doesn't rely so heavily on the audience doing something "right." A big bomb scare in Madagascar around the middle of the performance fell flat when it became clear none of the guests had actually found the code to defuse it yet, and the countdown was stopped with 29 seconds left on the clock. At the moment, it feels like even the cast barely knows what's going on except that the briefcases are important.
I could take or leave the screening, honestly, but I do hope this does well enough that we eventually get a Blade Runner or a Star Wars or a Moulin Rouge, something where the setting is the main character. Somewhere I don't feel so acutely that the onus is on me, the ticket-holder, to make my own fun.
Tickets available over on SmartTicket.