Sunday, 6 January 2008


Yesterday I completely forgot to write about what I did on Friday night, which was a trip to the theatre, of a kind. We went to see Punchdrunk Theatre's production of The Masque of the Red Death, at the Battersea Arts Centre.

I've been mulling over how on earth to review this one, as it really does defy description. Those who have been will understand, those who haven't are unlikely to me illuminated by my ramblings, so do go and see it (or one of their other productions) if you ever get the chance. This one's running until April so the UK-based of you have time. There's also a decent review of it here, and an amusing analogy here.

This production (like their Faust last year, which I missed, and I assume all of their productions in fact) was set in a large venue through which the audience, wearing masks, are free to wander at will. The actors also move around the set, walking through and performing their pieces. As an audience member, you can choose to follow a particular character on their journey around the set, stay in one place, or some random combination. The audience, anonymous as they are in their masks, are encouraged to get right up close to the actors, and indeed are sometimes physically involved in the scene. Removal of masks is strictly forbidden, as is talking.

So, weird enough you might think. Add in Edgar Allen Poe (not my favourite horror writer I have to admit, a bit too histrionic for me) and you have the opportunity to get truly strange.

The boyfriend and I were some of the first to arrive at the venue, and a small group of us were led off by a man with a colourful hat to an entrance round the back of the centre. We were issued with our freakish masks, which looked much like the skulls of giant birds, bone-white with beaks - think this, but all white. We were instructed not to remove our masks, not to speak, and not to try to stay together. We were then shown through a curtain, beyond which lay a series of dark rooms to explore. Off we set, with great trepidation. The rooms were deserted, with no actors in sight. All were decorated in proper gothic horror style, with rotting velvet drapes, unmade beds, dust, snarling taxidermy, books with torn out pages, scattered glass vials... The initial group of us separated out to explore, leaving me and the boyfriend alone, and I was terrified, absolutely terrified of losing him in there, in the dark. Most atmospheric! I feel a bit sorry for those who were let in later (there were staggered start times) who wouldn't have had that first eerie experience of being completely alone in this huge, empty, awful place.

Eventually we found some actors, ie people without masks on, and watched a few scenes before we felt brave enough to really get involved. After that it was a free-for-all, with the audience looking most authentically vulture-like as they all peered in, beaks right up to the faces of the actors at some points, picking up the props and playing with them, and being manhandled out of the way by the cast where necessary. We found a room where an actor playing a costumier dressed those who found it in long hooded cloaks in red or black velvet. We found various inexplicable goings on. At one point, we found the "Palais Royale", a theatre-within-a-theatre where a Victorian vaudeville show was taking place, and a "mesmerized" actor read the boyfriend's mind. We found several scenes which were clearly from The Fall of the House of Usher, but we also came across a very strange wedding, a violent rape scene, and a Japanese tea ceremony in a bordello - none of which I could place as Poe stories (I'm just glad they didn't do Berenice, or if they did, I'm glad I never found it). We were utterly confused by it all. There was even a clock tolling the hours with doom-laden notes...

"It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before."

Finally, after about three hours of fearful wandering, bells rang and we were all herded ("Quickly! Run! Not safe here!") into pitch-black atria, then released into a huge ballroom for the finale of The Masque of the Red Death itself, which was beautifully done. Then our masks and cloaks were reclaimed and the after-party kicked off in the ballroom, but we didn't feel much like staying for that - too soon after the festive revels.

Most definitely worth it, though of any kind of narrative structure there was no sign whatsoever. Really. I only knew what the hell was going on some of the time from being fairly well acquainted with some of the stories, but much of it was a complete mystery. An entertaining mystery, and a most interesting way to spend a Friday night, but not exactly coherent. But then if we only ever had traditional theatre, how boring would that be?

1 comment:

stash haus said...

Wow, that is SO unique. I have yet to hear of anything like that playing in Chicago (which I think would be the nearest location to support that kind of theatre).