Billed as "a world-first experiment in merging the live
and digital worlds",
Endlessly surprising and imaginative, without relying on retro nostalgia to sell its relevance
Beta Public's show opens and ends with an exhibition of virtual games, utilising Xbox and PS3 controllers, laptops, and dance-pads to set each piece apart with their own rules and expectations. Track+Feel II acts as a nifty two-person music sampler, sifting through clashing chords and rhythms to find your own unique sound, while Mystery Tapes places you in a purgatorial TV room full of pulsing polygons and stubborn tapes that won't play for you – though limited in gameplay, each offering is achingly curious and stunning to look at. The twin-stick shooter Hummingbird, too, only rewards you with snatches of text when you've worked together to reach the game's most hallucinogenic excesses: when you're told "it's ok to unwind after a while", you feel you've deserved it.
The occasional refusal to cater to the player can be frustrating. The aloof card-based guidelines of a building-block parlour game ensures a lot of baffled looks, with one player complaining to the host, "someone had a lot of ideas, but forgot the instructions". The soundscape of Broken Sounds, too, never seems to correspond too well to what you do with the controllers – possibly intentional, but difficult to engage with. Of course, the incomplete or 'broken' gameplay elements also force the player to find their own way, and it can be difficult to say what's a design flaw and what isn't, which seems to be part of the overall point.
The line-up is different every night, and part of the fun is figuring out what game resonates the most with you. But the meat of the evening is in its talks and performances. Ross Sutherland's Auto-TED Talk pokes fun at empty rhetoric by giving a presentation on a topic of the audience's choosing – in this case, 'A Van of Nuns' – in order to comment on 'dream logic' and inferring meaning from seemingly disconnected media. And Christopher Brett Bailey's meta narration through the streets of Bernband's pixel-dystopia, though brilliantly foul-mouthed and irreverent, is deeply concerned about issues of intimacy in a technologically-advanced society: a striking piece of writing, theatre, and gameplay rolled into one, showing perfectly what Beta Public aims to coalesce.
But by far the most ingenious performance on show is Hester Chillingworth and Hana Tait's Agent Everywhere: a simple but mind-bending game where the performers 'visualise or kill' suggested concepts, creating or dispelling meaning as they casually munch on a bag of peanuts. Unbelievably unscripted and fiercely intuitive, the hour-long piece runs like a Kierkegaard I-Spy and never drags. Black box wasn't good enough for this: it deserves a white plateau stretching into eternity and an equally-sized audience.
At its best, Beta Public's compelling ideas push you to make sense of the disparate elements in front of you, while never proscribing what you ought to take from it. Endlessly surprising and imaginative, without relying on retro nostalgia to sell its relevance, this reviewer can't wait to see what they come up with next.
A full list of performers and pieces can be found at www.cptheatre.co.uk/production/beta-public-v/