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Arriving in Freo on a chilly Friday night, goosebumps prickled my skin for two reasons: the crisp winter air and anticipation for what I would soon be witnessing inside the haunting halls of the Fremantle Arts Centre.

It was almost 7:30 pm, time for the Perth premiere of S-27 to begin. Written by UK playwright Sarah Grochala and directed by Australian-based theatre director Teresa Izzard, the play follows young May who lives in a dystopian world where an authoritarian regime under the name of the Organisation has taken control. May is a photographer who must take portrait shots of every person the Organisation has deemed as a traitor or criminal. Trapped in this mundane job of capturing the faces of people she knows will go to the deaths starts to take a toll on her mind and she starts to question her life and whether it’s worth saving.

Set in an unnamed Western country, possibly Britain, S-27 is loosely based on the Cambodia genocide era of 1975 to 1979. The communist party named the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, tortured people in a prison called S-21 and secretly executed them in, what is now known as, the Killing Fields of Cambodia.

Smacking of batons against a metal gate echoes behind us…

“You are about to be processed, get in line!” An ensemble of guards in black uniform emerge from the shadows, forcing us inside the FAC in two lines. “You! Step forward! Show me your hands!” The guards demand us to hand over our valuables and we are assigned a tag before lining up against the back wall waiting to be processed. Using the audience members as the prisoners is a very effective way to provide an immersive experience and let the mind wander back to history. Unpredictable and unforgiving, the acting and situation was very realistic and if I closed my eyes it was easy to believe it was real.

“You! Palms against the wall!” Climbing the stairs, I look over my shoulder and see a guard pointing at me. I swallow and walk over, unsure of which way he wants me to face. He repeats angrily, “Palms against the wall!” I follow the orders and he pats me down looking for contraband; unsuccessful he orders me to get back in line.

With the immersive part of the play over, we are lead to a room with a row of chairs on either side, we take our seats and wait for more of the story to unfold. Taking place in the haunting and unique atmosphere of the FAC adds to the mood washed over the audience as the guards storm the winding corridors, keeping us in line as we climb the stairs to where we will sit and watch the rest of the play.  Watching a theatre performance––not on a stage–– but in a small room right in front of the unsuspecting audience is an experience I have never encountered before. The whole idea of Feet First Collective making their own theatre space definitely worked. You feel a part of the action and can clearly see the emotions expressed by each character.

With minimal props, the director has relied on the dialogue of the play and somatic movement to convey the story.  Somatic means how we communicate meaning through our bodies, Teresa Izzard says it is the first-person experience of your body movement and really paying attention to how you are feeling on the inside––regardless of how it looks externally.

Gabriella Munro as May and Matthew Arnold as Young Man.

While at times I often felt lost in S-27’s story, knowing the context of what the play is inspired from allowed me to understand more deeply about the events unfolding in front of me. One of the things that stood out to me was just how passionately each actor portrayed their character. The emotion was raw and I congratulate the cast on being able to perform confronting topics such as violence, sexual harassment and extremism. It is definitely one of the most unusual but riveting theatre performances I have ever seen.

Gabriella Munro as May and Sally Clune as Cousin.

Exploring such themes as extremism, humanity and dystopian environments gives the audience an insight into this provocative perspective and ask questions like: Could this be a future here in Australia? What would have to happen for the world to get to this point? Involving the audience is a fun and different way to approach a complex and serious topic and certainly left me thinking well after the show had finished.

With so much talent and an engaging story, S-27 makes for a great night out as well as getting to support local theatre. If you’re up for a more serious and immersive theatre experience then definitely get around Fremantle’s new winter festival 10 Nights in Port and grab yourself a ticket to the performance. As my mum put it: it’s not for the light-hearted!

So, be careful, the Organisation is watching you…

You can catch S-27 at the Fremantle Arts Centre until July 21! For tickets or more information visit the website.