This is a story about truth, beauty, and freedom, but above all it’s a story about love. It’s also a story about growing up, immersive theatre, art as revolution, and the current Secret Cinema production of Moulin Rouge.
I first watched Moulin Rouge 15 years ago; it was 2002 and I was 15. I was very tall, very ginger, and very awkward, and I grew up as part of a small, fundamentalist Christian church whose views on gender and sexuality would politely be called traditional – I spent all of my Sundays in services where women weren’t allowed to speak. All of this added an intensity to the already thorny mix of contradictory messages that all teenage girls grapple with. I was by no means unhappy and was – and still am – part of a close, loving family. But I was deeply uncomfortable in my own skin, terrified of my own body, and wrangling a lot of internalised sexism in the years before helpful YouTube tutorials or indeed any online communities where I might find another way of being.
And so of course I turned to stories – books in particular. I was not much of a discerning film watcher; our family favourites were George of the Jungle and The Sound of Music, but I read and wrote avidly. But then, one day while home ill from school, I watched a Blockbuster VHS of Moulin Rouge, purely because it was there and I was bored, and I fell in love. I can remember the experience of watching it in intense and specific detail, and I can still easily conjure up the feeling as it ended, watching every moment of the credits, not wanting it to end. I fell for it with the intensity that comes only with the things you first encounter as a teenager.
At the time I wasn’t analysing why I’d connected so fiercely with the film, but in hindsight it’s almost embarrassingly obvious. Firstly there was Nicole Kidman as beautiful but doomed courtesan Satine. Seeing that level of gingerness and confidence existing simultaneously was addictive to me; she is so tall and ginger but so beautiful and elegant, and I was utterly entranced. Not to mention her big solo is literally called One Day I’ll Fly Away. And then there’s the penniless writer Christian, played by Ewan McGregor, who leaves his traditional, safe life to seek truth, beauty, freedom, and love in Paris surrounded by artists, bohemians, and revolutionaries. (McGregor, or rather McGregor’s singing voice, certainly added something too.) And finally there’s Baz Luhrmann’s version of the Moulin Rouge itself, a place of dancing, freedom, and abandon. Everything about the film was quixotic to me.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched Moulin Rouge; the songs and the script are second nature to me. I make niche jokes about it that my friends don’t get, and know an unusually large amount of trivia from watching the extensive extras on the special edition DVD. It’s played on loop in the background since I first discovered it; through my teenage years, going to university, leaving the church, embracing my hair, moving to London. It never stopped being my favourite film, but somewhere along the line of growing up, it lost some of its potency: I watched it for fun but it didn’t come with the rich hope of my teenage viewings.
At the end of 2016, Secret Cinema, an immersive theatre and film company, announced Moulin Rouge would be its next production, and I was thrilled. But the truth is, my adult self had lost sight how much the film had meant to me when I was a teenager. I also had very little idea of what to expect, having never been to a Secret Cinema film before. In my mind it was going to be a dress-up, singalong sort of situation, with actors playing out bits on stage, kind of like the interactive performances of Rocky Horror I’d been to. So, excited as I was while I got ready with my friends over a few bottles of prosecco, soundtrack blaring, nothing in me was prepared for how transformative the experience would prove to be.
More than a fancy dress singalong in every way, Secret Cinema has turned a huge space in east London into the streets of 1899 Montmartre. The night is a spectacular sensory ravishment from beginning to end, a shot of absinthe straight to the heart. There’s hours of open-ended exploring before the screening, where characters you feel you know so well are walking among the audience, talking and singing and dancing with you. It’s an intoxicating world where real life blurs with story. We duetted with the Duke, met a courtesan backstage at the Moulin Rouge, were taken to a secret bar by a drag queen, and became part of the beating heart of the bohemian revolution as we sang and danced and laughed and cried with nearly a thousand strangers.
And then, to a soundtrack that captures the elated anarchy of Luhrmann's film, we were transported to the Moulin Rouge itself as part of a sequence full of so much joy and magic that it is worth the ticket price alone. Part way through it one of the dancers beckoned me towards the stage, where the actor playing Moulin Rouge owner and impresario Harold Zidler held out a hand and pulled me up, dipping me into an over-the-top staged kiss. It passed in a blur of concentrating on not falling up the stairs and hearing my friends hollering from the front row in excitement. But there was a moment where the storyteller in me kicked in, I remembered what the movies have taught me, and I kicked out a foot pop just as a flash of a camera went off and the audience of the Moulin Rouge exploded in cheers. It’s the freeze frame in my mind that will forever be associated with Secret Cinema. And yes, it was just for a very quick set piece that happens every night and, yes, it was essentially random that I was stood in the right place, but imagine a character from your favourite film reaching a hand out and saying, come, be part of this story with us. It’s Hagrid opening Diagon Alley for you, or Gandalf knocking on your front door. It’s Jareth inviting you to waltz or Lucy Pevensie leading you into the wardrobe.
The person behind these moments is Fabien Riggall, the founder of Secret Cinema, a man entirely and sincerely invested in his audience. “We give so much love to the idea of what the audience feel – it’s always about the audience and how we take what people love and translate it into an experience which they can be part of,” he told me in May when we sat down to speak about this current production, and the bohemian ideals driving it forward. “I think incredibly intensely about what it means to take these stories that people adore and create something where people feel so joyous at the end of the night. Think of when we did Star Wars: These are people’s memories of their childhoods, of going to the cinema with their fathers.”
I was keen to ask Riggall why he chose Moulin Rouge, and how he reacts to the challenge of creating experiences for audiences who have such close emotional relationships to these stories. For him, the bohemian revolution is key and the hashtag they’ve chosen – #SocietyOfLove – is more than just a pithy phrase: “With every Secret Cinema we look at how the world feels, and what society is going through at that specific point. So with Moulin Rouge, it’s the current disenchantment, disenfranchisement, the breakdown of democracy, the increase in nationalism. It plays on all these themes that feel so relevant today: protest, revolution. We wanted to do something joyous, that celebrated multiculturalism, that allowed audiences to become part of a society of love versus a society of division and hate.”
Riggall, and therefore Secret Cinema, is unashamedly political. He cofounded the March for Europe against Brexit, and the company’s social channels are full of pleas for people to vote, to engage, and to empathise. This week, in the lead-up to the election, they’re showing I, Daniel Blake in London and Newcastle with free tickets for jobseekers and reduced prices for under-25s. Each night at the Moulin Rouge there is a collection for Help Refugees and an in-character speech from Zidler about tolerance and inclusivity is shouted to raised glasses and cheers of solidarity. Despite criticism for political rhetoric on the official Secret Cinema channels, for Riggall the idea of using story to make you see something another way is crucial: “I fear that people feel like culture’s become a commodity, it’s become art for art’s sake. But art can change the world. Art is political. When you watch a film or see a piece of art, or you’re inspired by little things, that is political. Everything is influencing someone over another thing. It’s so important to remember that whether it’s a theatre show or a book you can change the world.”
I’ve had mixed reactions when I’ve tried to articulate quite why Secret Cinema had such a profound effect on me. Many of my friends are writers, and they’ve understood it instantly, because they deal in the healing powers of stories themselves. (And a moment here to raise a glass of absinthe to my friends who came with me more than once: Here’s to friends who never make you feel silly for the things you love, and don’t just merrily enable you living out your teenage fantasies but cheer you on as they happen.) I needn’t have worried about trying to explain to Riggall why Secret Cinema meant so much to me, though. He gets it: “You should never underestimate stories, I think now more than ever. All that I see in the world is story; you’re telling me your story, I’m telling you mine. Why are people saying this is one of the best nights of their life? It’s the sense of story, the sense of wellbeing, the sense that you can reimagine another way.”
In many ways, Secret Cinema is an opportunity to throw off your inhibitions and reality and lose yourself, but it ended up giving me a way to find a bit of myself, as trite as that might sound. I felt as though I was coming full circle on the desperately lost teenager who first saw Moulin Rouge and felt her heart and her world get a little bigger. I cheerfully recognise the joyful absurdity of dealing with a religious childhood by dressing up as a turn-of-the-century Parisian courtesan in east London, and of course Secret Cinema is not a cure for anything – but it is a balm. Each time I’ve been it’s felt like a gift to my 15-year-old self, and I can’t help believing that there’s little lovelier than doing something for the teenager you used to be. ●
Secret Cinema's Moulin Rouge runs through Sunday, June 11th.