by Gavin Haines, The Telegraph, September 13, 2017
If in-flight entertainment leaves you a little cold, you may be interested to hear about Icelandair’s latest initiative: immersive theatre at 30,000 feet. Yes, really.
That’s not all. Adding further intrigue to this already unlikely story is that the theatre is not only performed by professional actors, but also willing volunteers from Icelandair’s cabin crew, who have spent summer at stage school.
This I had to see. So I headed to Heathrow yesterday morning, where I soon found myself being thrust into the show.
After registering at a desk outside Terminal 2, I was given a discreet flower to wear (denoting my part in the show) and sent off on my immersive journey. “Just go through the airport as you normally would,” I was advised. And so I did.
Within minutes I “bumped into” a tweed-wearing woman with a double-barrelled name, who insisted on lending me her hapless butler, Bagshot, “a stupid little man” who obediently carried my bags to the check-in desk. She would be flying the plane, I was told. And so it began.
Also in the queue at check-in was Alex, a scatty “gap yah” backpacker who had just been blazing a trail around Southeast Asia. He was emptying his bag, disgorging it of Nirvana CD’s and a dog-eared copy of The Beach, to look for his passport. Except he wasn’t. He was an actor on probably the most bizarre assignment of his year.
From there I was a passenger, literally and metaphorically. I had entered a world of immersive theatre – in an airport of all places.
It was a welcome distraction from the tedium of security and the constant feeling of being sold to in the terminal. And that was the neat trick, the slight of hand, because we were being sold to; we were being sold Iceland and we were being sold Icelandair.
But as I was thrust into the immersive, never-been-done-before, 11-hour play, there was no time to think about that. “Play”: now that’s some artistic license right there, because this would not be a play in the traditional sense. There would be no gripping, linear narrative to speak of – the plot would essentially be a company profile; Icelandair at 80 – but it would certainly be theatrical, definitely be immersive.
Led by Gideon Reeling, a small theatre company in London, Icelandair had planted – at Heathrow, on the flight to Reykjavik, at Reykjavik Airport and on the jet to New York – a dozen or so actors to play a motley crew of characters: from flower-loving hippies to briefcase-toting businessmen. Travellers throughout the ages, basically. We would later learn of their connection to the airline.
Valerie, the glamorous Sixties tour rep, was my favourite. Oh I liked Valerie. She was funny and sassy and she had “organised everything”, apparently. And she knew where to find the champagne at Terminal 2.
So far so fun. And not some corporate boardroom, blue-sky take on fun, but actual fun. I laughed. I got into it. In fact, I started, almost, to create a persona of my own. I also started to question whether anything around me was real. Who were the normal people, who were the actors?
Ironically it was another Val – Valerie – who attempted to sooth my nerves. “Hold my hand,” she offered, sweetly, as we took off into turbulent air. For the most part I forgot I was in an airport. I forgot to feel nervous about flying. I forgot to drop a Valium, which I always do before take off.
And then we were above the clouds where it was smooth sailing. The hippies, Ritchie and Cynthia, produced a guitar and started a rendition of Love Me Do. We sang along. It was a party at 30,000 feet, with a Sixties theme, when the airline's slogan was “slower and lower”. I tried to imagine Ryanair or BA going along with this, but I couldn’t.
I won’t go on, but I will say this: the mile-high immersive theatre thing; I thought it would be awful. It wasn’t. In fact, as the actors moved around the cabin, regaling passengers with their stories, I was genuinely entertained. I liked the theme of female empowerment, as championed by the carrier, which ran through it. Truthfully, I don’t remember having more fun on a flight.
The professionals took the lead, naturally; airline employees played subter, support roles. The characters and their era-specific anecdotes (Ritchie’s “far out” account of the hippy trail, Valerie’s role in the feminist movement, for example) were well thought out and funny - and so were their costumes. There was a bit of Icelandic folklore thrown in and dutiful storytelling about brand Icelandair (characters, we would learn, were based on the family behind the airline).
The performance sort of fizzled out over the Atlantic, like one of the hippies’ campfires. Masks started to slip, fatigue set in and the realities of modern aviation started to bite; dehydration, discomfort, a weakening grip on time and duty free trollies. Behind the facade it was business as usual.
By the time I had landed at New York and let a surly immigration officer scan my fingerprints, it had all felt like some weird dream; a dream where, for one day only, flying had been fun again.
Icelandair’s immersive theatre performance, Ahead of Time, was ostensibly a one-off, though if deemed a success more may follow.
However, as part of an effort to push the arts in Iceland and beyond, the airline will enter passengers travelling to Iceland on a Stopover Pass (which allows a free seven-day stopover on transatlantic flights) into a ballot that could see them win tickets for a range of performances in Iceland; from private gigs in a local’s front room to backstage passes at a music festival.