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The ‘escape room’ show that explores what happens after you tear down theatre’s structures

Dismantle This Room at London's Royal Court. Photo: Jemima Yong
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Some words are more loaded than others. During my hour and a half experiencing Dismantle This Room at the Royal Court Theatre, the word that electrified the proceedings was “dismantle”.

Co-created by writer Nina Segal, director Milli Bhatia and producer Ingrid Marvin, the show took the form of an escape room experience. These usually involve locking participants in a room and asking them to solve puzzles and discover clues in order to escape, usually within an hour.

The Royal Court’s version riffs on this idea, but instead the participants are invited to unlock and dismantle the structural inequality of the theatre world, a world where white men, and to a lesser extent white women, still dominate things.

Participants explore the world of Dismantle This Room. Photo Jemima Yong

Escape rooms are fundamentally games. It is possible to win them (by getting out on time) or lose them (by not getting out). Dismantle This Room is a witty deconstruction of this format – you can’t ‘win’ structural inequality by gaming it – as well as a trust exercise: given that most of the participants are strangers, how can they work together to solve the puzzles?

More importantly, how can they do that, within their teams, while also addressing the structural inequality of the group itself? This is where that word – “dismantle” – starts to make the process problematic.

At the start of the show participants are invited to reveal the price they paid for their tickets (£1, £5, £12 or £18 depending on your self-assessment of your level of privilege). We’re invited to examine the positions we occupy in society, as reflected by that pricing system, while also observing which voices in the group are being amplified or muffled.

I was the only person of colour in my group. This appears to have been a relatively rare experience over the course of the run, but it does serve to highlight the difficulty of reaching a marginalised audience who might not feel they ‘belong’ at the Royal Court, or even know what it is. More significantly, the version I participated in was derailed for about 20 minutes while a white man tried to game the system by refusing to acknowledge the results of a consensus vote.

Dismantle This Room. Photo Jemima Yong

Consider the word “dismantle” here. This man insisted we were dismantling restrictive rules (without giving away too much, we were faced with an either/or choice and he thought we should attempt to take both and work out which one we liked the best). Any structure was de facto up for dismantling.

All rules, therefore, were out the window; all structures represented limitation. But without any scaffolding, and without an alternative structure in place, a pattern emerged: the loudest and most confident voices – and the voices of people with significant privilege in society – tended to dominate.

My take away from this was that to learn anything from a lesson, first you need to accept that you’re in need of illumination. You cannot learn anything from Dismantle This Room if you enter it planning to ‘win’ it; individual engagement at the level of the play, the puzzle, the locked box mystery, is a static and finite.

Nor, really, does Dismantle This Room expect you to truly dismantle anything within its run time. But it does ask the question of what happens after you begin dismantling things? Does tearing things down just create more space for the loudest voices to fill?

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