Inception versus Earthquakes in London

Last week I went to see Inception, as did however many million other Brits. It was two-and-a-half hours of non-stop adrenaline, which meant that I spent the entire film slack-jawed, tight-gripped, sweaty-foreheaded. And I barely ever sweat.

When it was finally over, I found myself shaking, barely able to stand up, reduced to leaning on the fiancé for support – and his legs were quaking too, so we left the cinema looking like a pair of geriatrics. I was reminded of one particularly grim night during my first term of university when I drank a litre of espresso and could do nothing other than lie on my bed shivering for hours, unable to sleep, unable to concentrate on the essay I was supposed to be writing, wondering if this was what it might be like should I end up in purgatory.

I know there are people who call themselves ‘adrenaline junkies’. I can only conclude that they must also be quite insane. I would hate to put myself through that prolonged state of extreme tension again.

Inception seems to be one of those films that everyone says is brilliant, except for those people who say that ‘everyone says it’s brilliant, but I thought it was awful’. Yes, ok, it has massive plot flaws, and one does come out thinking ‘well what was the point of that?’ (I managed to annoy the fiancé almost as much as after The Karate Kid – see my last post – by constantly saying, ‘But what if this is a dream, and what if my subconscious made me go to see that film to realise that I’m in a dream, or what if you are controlling my dream and wanted me to see that so that …’)

But for all its flaws, I fail to see how anyone could not be completely and utterly absorbed by Inception. My near-death adrenaline experience was, in its own way, rather amazing. How clever to be able to make a film that is so intense, so gripping, so immersive! Quite aside from the shots of Paris being bent around and the collective ‘wooah, wow’s of the audience, being on the edge of one’s seat for two-and-a-half hours might be rather uncomfortable but it’s one hell of an achievement for the director.

You must know by now that books are at the top of my list of favourite things. Above Coco Pops, toast, sunflowers and certainly films. But I do feel that the total immersion achieved in Inception is only very rarely found in books. (Is it embarrassing to admit that the Harry Potter books might be the only ones that, for me, have ever come close?) And plays … well, now they’re a different kettle of fish altogether.

Or are they? Later in the week I went to see Earthquakes in London, a new Mike Bartlett play directed by Rupert Goold, the same guy who did Enron (which I thought was a bit silly and bizarrely akin to Peter Pan in this vintage post), at the National’s Cottlesloe theatre.

I have to admit to palpable feelings of smugness and anachronism when I go to the theatre. It is so much more highbrow than the cinema. Definitely not for the hoi polloi, no matter how much the Arts Council tries to make it more socially inclusive. Yet theatre certainly used to be as much for the hoi polloi as for anyone else, and I suppose that’s what makes it feel slightly anachronistic. Ask Joe Bloggs when he last went to the cinema and when he last went to the theatre and I can hazard a guess that the cinema will be a far more recent and far more frequent excursion.

But Earthquakes in London is not set up to look high-brow at all. The Cottlesloe has been emptied out and turned into what looks like an enormous bar – a serpentine orange raised surface that winds its way through several pivoty bar stools. The action takes place on said snakey bar and on two raised stages recessed into the walls on either end. It means that those people seated on the pivoty bar stools spend a great deal of time pivoting around.

Now in the rather cynical zone of my head I imagine some hotshot young director saying something as vile as:

Let’s sex this baby up. Let’s throw the action right up into their faces. Let’s break down the barriers, let’s deconstruct the whole idea of “theatre”.


But, to my surprise, it works. I was completely absorbed. The acting is brilliant, which is crucial – one is so close to the actors, anything less than completely convincing wouldn’t cut it – and all the music and the lights, and the rapid head turning from one end to the other … Well it makes it fun, different and compelling. I felt in the middle of it all, caught up in the action; it was all too easy to forget I was in a theatre for over three hours. Yes, that’s right. The play was actually longer than Inception. And I was standing up. And I loved it.

But can this kind of sensationalist theatre really compete with the special effects, enormous screens, clever camera angles and speeded-up/slowed-down shots of a film like Inception?

Well, I’ve told you about the effects of all that Inception-fuelled adrenaline, but Earthquakes in London had a far more dramatic effect on me.

I fainted.

After only half-an-hour or so, I felt it coming on – the nausea, the thudding in my ears, the blacking out, the strange fuzzy pins-and-needles feeling in my head. I staggered towards the exit (through the strobe lighting and crowds of spectators), was helped up the stairs (which by then I couldn’t see at all) by a very kind steward, and swiftly collapsed on the blue carpet of the foyer.

If I were a human scale of overwhelmingness, I would say that fainting definitely trumps jittery sweats. And so Earthquakes in London must trump Inception. And so, I suppose, this sensationalist ‘sexed-up’ theatre must trump Hollywood no-expense-spared cinema.

And, best of all, even if Earthquakes in London has an unbelievably naf ending, it does make rather a serious point, unlike Inception. It makes one think about hedonism in the light of ecological disaster. It makes one (or, at least, me) completely panic about the future of our planet, and what we are bringing our children into, and what can we do to stop it, and why aren’t we doing all of that and more right now … Perhaps Inception isn’t the best film for comparison; Avatar is along more similar ecological lines.

But now I come to think of it, and now I remember Avatar – another brilliantly absorbing film, I wonder if 3D specs are the answer for an ultimate viewing experience. Perhaps what one should really do is go to the, completely naturally 3D, theatre instead.

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