A few weeks ago, we all trekked down to the Project Arts Centre in Dublin to take a look at Dan Bergin’s show Fused. This week, we have Andy McLoughlin giving his two cents on the show, which premiered last year as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival.
Fused is probably the best video game I’ve played all year. Which is pretty impressive when you consider that it’s a play. The premise is simple: selected members of the audience are called to the front row and asked to guide the show’s bumbling protagonist, Ste (Ste Murray), through a series of challenges in which he must interact with the on-stage props and characters, (played by Barry Morgan, Annie Gill, Eddie Murphy, and Camille Lucy Ross)to progress the story. In the show’s introduction, we are given a brief history of the point-and-click video-games that inspired the show’s format. People who see Fused will have different experiences of the show depending on their familiarity with the medium, and this definitely came across in the behaviour of the different audience members- henceforth known as “players”- who were brought up from the audience.
Being a sort of strange love letter to an era gone by, there are plenty of quirks and idiosyncrasies in the production that will resonate with people who are a little more au fait with the art of video games. Most notable of these is the economical set design by Zia Holly, which was a great marriage between the basic, almost ugly design typical of these games, and the charming and cartoonish world of the main story. These quirks could be as obvious as a giant “LOADING” screen being pushed across the stage during transitions, or as covert as a non-interactive prop having an “out of order” sign slapped across it.
These allusions could be found in the play itself as well. Point and Click adventures are characterised by moments of frustration and there were certainly a lot of these to be found in Fused. The actors would often imitate the pedantic programming of these games, almost to fault, saying “I can’t do two things at once,” or “I can’t pick it up, my hands are full”, which we must have heard about 3,000 times during the show. For me, this demonstrated a faithfulness that was admirable, but for others, less experienced in the mannerisms of the late-nineties subculture, it was a persistent irritant.
These issues were amplified for any of those unfortunate players tasked with guiding the actors through the story line that had been presented to them. There was a time-limit for each scene and this meant the pressure on the players was ratcheted up as time went on. As the play progressed, it quickly emerged that there were two kinds of players who came to see this show: those who knew what they were doing and those who didn’t. Of course, as anybody who’s ever watched a horror movie knows, there’s a certain pleasure in watching on in terror as somebody stumbles into increasingly disastrous decisions.
In terms of acting, this play is notable for what I’ve always felt was one of the less appreciated theatrical virtues: balance. Not in the characters themselves, mind you. No, the acting there was every bit as deliciously awful as we’ve come to expect from video games. It’s in the moments of improvisation where we see the actors make a split-second decision. Be it between following a bad command from the audience and giving them a hint that would move along the story, or between playing something up for laughs and keeping focus on the task at hand. In a show where the user is in control, they manage to create the illusion of a world where anything can happen, without turning it into an aimless train wreck.
Fused is theatre at its most accessible- and indeed, perhaps the show’s most impressive feat was being completely reliant on audience interaction without missing a beat or feeling forced. The thing that gets said most often about interactive theatre is that it brings the audience into the production. Video games are the opposite. A developer makes a game, creates a set of characters, releases it into the world and from there they are done. From the moment a player turns on their console, it’s their responsibility and theirs alone to bring the work to its conclusion. Fused isn’t just interactive in a way that plays rarely are, it’s malleable in a way that video games, by their definition, can never be.
I told a friend about this play before I wrote the review and he told me that it sounds like it could be either really really terrible, or really really great. And from the very start, this play is really about potential. The audience members who are picked to control the characters will either roll with the story, or miss the point entirely; the actors on-stage can either follow the rules of audience interaction set out at the start, or learn and adapt to the audience on the night; When we leave the show we can view it through one lens or another. We can either look at this as an imperfect, dumbed down version of theatre and an imitation of video-games; or a complete piece in and of itself, with its own rules, its own potential, and its own future, different in its own way from anything that’s come before. I know which one I’d prefer.