For newcomers to immersive theatre, Exit Productions’ Fight Night will leave a serious impression – an ambitious, skilfully executed and genuinely entertaining dive into the deceit and lawlessness of a subculture. But the experience perhaps shoots itself in the foot, by promising an interactivity that they haven’t entirely found a way to substantiate.
It’s impossible to fault the ambition of Fight Night – a 90-minute immersion into the shady nature of underground boxing by Exit Productions, and a return to VAULT Festival for the award-winning company after last year’s politically-charged Revolution.
As testosterone levels soar and the familiar lawlessness of the subculture reveals itself, Fight Night audiences are assigned a competitor to support through the evening’s inevitable changing-room nerves, heated weigh ins, hyper-theatrical trash-talking rituals, emerging personal conflicts and – of course -the winner-takes-all showdown.
For someone brand new to immersive, interactive or even promenade theatre, Fight Night will leave a serious impression. Though my own experience was predominantly shaped by performer prompts to move from space to space (it felt weird, even a bit rude, to get up and walk away mid-dialogue), freedom is offered – and genuinely facilitated – to both explore the four or five spaces and approach performers at leisure.
Of course, the more you throw yourself into the experience and interactions, the more opportunities arise to become entangled with (entertaining, low-risk kinds of) ‘deceit’. Amusement also stems from watching fellow audience members infiltrate and report back on the opposition’s tactics, or sneak off to engage in dodgy dealing influencing the match’s odds – or simply help to style and help craft the all-important brand of their fighter in anticipation of his grand entrance.
Sounds fun, right? And it is – primarily because Exit Productions’ execution is better than you’re accustomed to expect for a company with this sort of budget to play with. The combination of the site’s preexisting features and dressing, for one, makes the environment an immaculately believable one for a seditious late-night fight club. And though the atmosphere suffers from capacity restrictions (there’s nowhere near enough people crowded around the ring during the piece’s athletic bout, for instance, to bring an authentic energy to the – albeit immaculate – fight choreography), there’s a low-fi likability to proceedings which excuses it.
Is it for everyone? I’d have to argue ‘not quite’. Though it’ll certainly be memorable for any newcomer to immersivity, Fight Night could be said to lean towards the more ‘intimidating’ of experiences out there. Perhaps it’s unavoidable given the aggression inherent in the ‘underworld’ they’re recreating (and also the fewer number of other audience members, meaning you feel far less invisible or anonymous than in a Punchdrunk-or-similar production), but when the loudmouth alpha boxer coerces members of his entourage (yes that’s you) to bark insults down an empty corridor in the direction of the opposition, I know more than a couple of introverts who’d likely want to curl into a foetal position and hug their knees until it’s over. Hannah Samuels (as his girlfriend) does bring a reassuring warmth to scenes – which I completely appreciate have been constructed to start conversations about toxic masculinity and expectation – but the company shouldn’t underestimate how important the gentleness of her interaction (and mere presence) are to prevent some moments from feeling overwhelming, and even unpleasant.
The subplots that come to light are a little on the thin side, and Fight Night‘s ending is not entirely satisfactory – there’s too much preamble, and one too many loose ends, not to even briefly return to the characters after the knockout in my opinion (at the moment, the fight literally ‘ends’, and the house lights come up). But there’s a self-deprecation to performances (an amusing throwaway near the start from my Lewisham-based boxer, for instance, questioning ‘what we are doing inside a shitty railway tunnel’) that make some of the clunkier expositional moments – a discovery of a positive pregnancy test in my camp, for example – seem more acceptable than they otherwise would. It’s the sort of show where you ‘go with the flow’, don’t question too much and understand not to look for too much hidden meaning or nuance in the dialogue. But at least the company seems to know what they are, and what they’re not.
The impressiveness of its logistics and ‘entertainment factor’ aside, what may prevent Fight Night audiences from leaving entirely content is its lack of transparency about exactly how (or if) their decisions really did ‘influence the outcome’. I trust the company that it really is different every night, that ‘game theory’ played a large part in the piece’s conception and – to be honest – wouldn’t be particularly bothered about any of this had Exit Productions not made it the USP of their publicity campaign or reiterated it at the start of the experience. But an opaqueness as to how proceedings were or could be swayed seems like an avoidable sin, particularly because the experience is less ‘repeatable’ than a Punchdrunk creation (when there’s indeed a niche audience who will return repeatedly to collectively piece together the show’s mechanics).
I don’t think this show has that sort of market, and therefore it’d be satisfying to leave with some idea about ‘how’ or ‘who’ (within us) managed to change the primary narrative. Gambling odds are nice to affect but ultimately don’t amount to anything (slips turn out to be meaningless pieces of paper, regardless of the fight result). Spectators becoming ‘judges’ is an appealing touch, except the fight choreo (at least on the night I attended) didn’t end up giving them any agency to determine anything – a staged ‘knockout’ occurred and the result was decided for them.
I’m absolutely not suggesting Fight Night is built on ‘smoke-and-mirrors’, but would just push – as I overheard another audience member doing, to a less-than-satisfactory, vague response to be honest – for the company to find a smart way to provide more clarity. Again, perhaps the key lies in a final scene – to follow the showdown – where the characters who took you ‘under their wing’ remain in character but manage to connect some dots.