Last night I took a trip to a galaxy far, far away – just 30 minutes from my door. Secret Cinema have pulled out all the stops this time for their immersive screening of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The world they created (see pics above) was as detailed as when I saw their Blade Runner, though the set was vastly bigger. And they sorted out the projection problems that had ruined Lawrence of Arabia in Alexandra Palace and caused me to leave in the interval: both image and sound were super-crisp and clear.
I can’t give away any of the surprises of the night – this is Secret Cinema, after all. But I will say that standing next to Imperial Stormtroopers can give you a surprising frisson of primal fear, however much you are aware these are actors in white suits (and that Stormtroopers never shoot straight anyway!); that Secret Cinema have recreated not just a Tatooine desert village, but some of the vehicles, too, moving and lifesized; and that whereas previous Secret Cinemas have disgorged you into the night, blinking, straight after the screening, this time you can party in a vast industrial nightclub space.
Is it worth £75? That depends on how big a Star Wars fan you are, and whether you are more used to spending £60-plus on a theatre ticket or £12 in the cinema. I can say that you do see where the money has gone. I recently interviewed Fabien Riggall, the founder of Secret Cinema, and he insisted he wasn’t in this to get rich – “Do I drive a Bentley? I don’t even have a car, just an old camper van that’s always breaking down” – but that doing justice to a cultural icon like Star Wars means putting on the show of a lifetime.
“I could list everything that goes into a production of this size,” Fabien said, “but that would spoil the mystery. I’d rather keep it in narrative, and say something like the final stage of the Clone Wars left massive destruction across the galaxy and the price of titanium has gone up.”
Secret Cinema receives no public arts funding (unlike, for instance, immersive theatre company Punchdrunk), even though Fabien Riggall says he has applied many times; and he refuses to do an overall sponsorship deal with a credit card company or similar. In fact, he has strong feelings about how big brands and corporations are ruining the arts.
“Every studio and label is owned by these huge corporations – it should be rock ‘n’ roll, there should be mystery, but instead we’re being taking over by giant shopping centres, the whole world is becoming like Dubai. There’s a distinct thread to those deciding how we live and what our experience of the theatre or the multiplex will be. If I ran Live Nation I would create a game, where if you get through it you can go to the front of the stage.
“Like, recently I was in Detroit and found out that Prince was playing. I tried to get tickets but they were $500, so I just went to the theatre and pretended I was distant family of his from England – I was just acting, pretending to myself I was in a show – and that created this confusion, so I managed to get in right to the front without a ticket!
“But when I got there it was filled with VIPs paying thousands of dollars. Why is it not rock ‘n’ roll anymore, with girls throwing their knickers? Culturally we are in a place where the wrong people are in charge. Every studio and label is owned by these huge corporations. We deserve to lose ourselves in another world, get some of that magic back.”
Fabien is planning to launch Secret Cinema in America soon, but, more intriguingly, he is also talking to top film-makers and musicians directly about how to make immersive art that connects more strongly with their audience. In short, he wants nothing less than to revolutionise the way art and entertainment is created and consumed.
Going back to Star Wars, Fabien says that this is not just a film “cherished by millions”, that has “ignited thousands of creative careers”, but also feels very personal to him. “The Rebel Alliance represents fighting for a world of mystery, excitement and adventure, a world of quests and dreams: that represents the ethos of Secret Cinema.”
In other words, Fabien is a maverick pilot, with Secret Cinema as his Millennium Falcon; the big corporations are the Death Star. The Force is indeed strong with this one.
Secret Cinema presents Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back runs now until 27 September. http://www.secretcinema.org/tickets