Masque of the Red Death

4 January 2008

Kudos to my friend Kate, who managed to score impossible-to-get tickets to uber-cool theatre company Punchdrunk’s latest production/installation/theatre extravaganaza, Masque of the Red Death, which I went to last night.

Punchdrunk are London’s latest physical theatre company du jour who scored a big success last year with a production of Faust set in a warehouse in East London. Their style is something akin to a million “physical theatre” pieces I sat through in my student theatre critic days in the 90s, with varying levels of amusement.

Physical theatre usually involves beautiful athletic young thespians descending on a “found space” (derelict warehouses are popular, as are mental asylums, de-consecrated churches or anything representing “authority”) and earnestly proceed to create a work “in the space”. It’s usually movement rather than text based (though the original inspiration may come from a line of Hamlet or something scrawled on the back of a supermarket receipt), and is usually inspired by the mime-theatre of Jacques Le Coq or the S&M dance practice of Pina Bausch. The air is thick with existential angst and lots of twisted sexuality. Choreography tends to be tortured and sweaty, a cross between an epileptic fit and some kind of balletic gang rape. Rather than actually making a statement or contributing an idea, most physical theatre contents itself with deconstructing some perceived aspect of conservative authority – the System, the Father, the Machine (take your pick, really) and sift frenziedly through the ashes with a well-timed primal scream or two, and maybe some strategic nudity.

As you may be able to tell, I’ve run the gamut from A to B with physical theatre: I once loved it, but now find it nice to look at (particularly if the performers are cute, oiled and naked) but now mostly find it pointless, self-indulgent and derivative. It amuses me that physical theatre still seems dazzlingly avante-garde in London’s theatre scene, which is still fairly saturated with talking heads drama, revivals of the classics or glossy tits-and-teeth musicals, whereas it seems almost bludgeoned to death as a genre in New Zealand and Australian theatre.

Devised theatre is always fun to perform, but often much less interesting to watch. As an audience, you don’t have access to the last seven weeks of rehearsal, and so don’t know that the scene where someone gets dragged along the ground by their pubic hair is symbolic of the destruction of the environment or the actor’s recovered memory of child abuse, so there’s a limitation to your understanding of and appreciation of the “piece”. Bereft of meaning (or dialogue), you’re left with spectacle and display, which can be fun to watch… for a while, but increasingly leaves me dissatisfied and wanting more.

Nonetheless, I was excited to see Masque of the Red Death, as it was supposedly based on the writings of Gothic writer and sometime necrophiliac Edgar Allen Poe, had garnered terrific advance reviews, and was set in the Battersea Arts Centre, a bastion of racy arts practice in my otherwise anodyne new neighbourhood south of the Thames. Delicious too, to be able to see it in the middle of winter, for an added layer of witching hour ambience.

We arrived at the BAC to find a moustachioed actor in Victorian dress and a large walking stick instructing us to walk around the corner and down the hill, then go down the staircase. We did as we were told, and were lead inside and up another staircase, where we lined up to wait for the next entry time, and were given a white Commedia Dell Arte mask, something akin to what everyone was wearing in the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut. I asked if we got to take off our clothes as well, but didn’t get a response. Trying to fit a mask with beak on it over spectacles proved slightly tricky, and resulted in me fogging up every time I breathed too much.

We were lead into a small room surrounded by red velvet curtains, and a small actress in a Victorian dress appeared, told us not to stick together, and to beware. So far, all a bit panto, but kinda fun. We were then lead towards a seemingly endless corridor – dark and foggy, with blacked out windowed doors leading to other rooms, and a low-pitched but omipresent soundscape that was all the creepier for not being quite distinguishable – a low hum of white noise, sometimes vague rumblings of strings, sighing voices and the occasional creaking door. Within five minutes, I was freaking out. I could see nothing in front of me, had no idea what or who was behind me, and was in continual fear that a bloodied hand would grab me and pull me behind a curtain. With the masks on, everyone looked identical, anonymous and threatening, and somehow we knew that talking wasn’t allowed. Almost all memories of the outside world were gone – we were inside the Masque possibly forever.

We eventually came upon some rooms, that were elaborately decorated into high Victorian gothic gloom. Delapidated Victorian furniture, old rugs, tasselled curtains, embroidered screens, cobwebs everywhere, and every possible surface covered with Victorian bric-a-brac, desks filled with tattered papers, old anatomy books, stuffed animals, empty wine glasses, jars filled with suspicious looking potions, human organs, leftover tools from crackpot Victorian sciences like phrenology and palmistry, and the odd occult looking thingee. The first room we stumbled into was a cross between an opium den and a tobacconists, and a pale, skeletal looking actress wandered in and spoke in hushed tones to a dodgy sideburned bookkeeper behind a desk. She signed her name in a faded looking leather book and wandered off again.

And on and on it went, rooms leading into rooms, with occasional glimpses of actors, the only light coming from flickering candles or pale gaslight. The feeling was of continually entering a scene too late, just as the action has passed, with only an extensively art-directed mess left behind. Bleak looking bedrooms with rumpled sheets, deserted sitting rooms with a dying fire and a smoking cigar still left half-smoked in ashtrays, clocks ticking ominously to measure out our lives, tiny stores with women selling poisons or love potions, stairs leading to garrets with hanging sheets and the ghosts of madwomen.

We finally came upon something resembling plot when two actors burst into a room and started playing, fairly much to the letter, the early scenes from Poe’s story The Fall of the House of Usher, where an unnamed gentleman arrives at the ancestral home of the Ushers to find his friend Roderick Usher going out of his mind, burying his sickly sister in the family vault (unfortunately before she’s dead) and watching as the house splits in two and sinks into the earth. Punchdrunk’s actors literally threw themselves (and some of the audience) into the action, taking Poe’s subtextual themes of incest and necrophilia one step further by having the gentlemen discover Roderick rogering his dead sister in bed. The actors were mostly oblivious to our presence, as we crowded around the action in our identical beak masks, becoming identical faceless parts of the action, occasionally hurling us out of the way when we got in the way or grabbing us suddenly.

As the actors ran screaming out of the room, we scampered after them into a balconied area overlooking a huge marble staircase straight out of Phantom of the Opera, where several stories seemed to collide. Roderick dragged his dead sister down to the cellar and threw her into the crypt, where, like a good Gothic bride, she rose from the dead and ran back after him into the stairwell, where the Masque of the Red Death seemed to be in full swing. Based on another of Poe’s stories, this was the tale of Prince Prospero, who tried to avoid a mysterious illness known as the Red Death by gathering a thousand nobles into his walled abbey for an elaborate masked ball.

At this point, Kate and I (who’d somehow managed to keep finding me, despite my best attempts to run away from her) realised that the gloves were off, and there was a free-falling sense of craziness to it all. Up and down we wandered, into the
basement where a cabaret/music hall called the Palais Royale served beer in brown bottles and cheap wine while a band played and a variety of freak-show acts (ballerinas, Dance of the Seven Veil stripteases, transvestites, magicians and a crazed ringmasterish MC) performed. Better still, you could remove your mask! If you turned another corner, you could even creep into the dressing rooms and see the performers rehearse, argue, put on their make up and undress. Elsewhere, we watched a fierce sexual tussle between a husband and wife, ending down a narrow staircase where the husband throws the wife down, fucks her while she’s apparently dead and buries her. The Waltons, this definitely wasn’t.

Much, much later, as we were watching some dedraggled thespians eat a boozy dinner, simulate sex with each other and tar and feather one of their guests (as you do), a tolling bell rang, everyone started screaming, and we were hoarded like sheep into a ballroom. It was here that the power of our masks (and several people who had mysteriously acquired capes) took hold, as hundreds of identical beak masks crowded together for The Big Finale. Here was the Masque of the Red Death at last, as the band struck up a frenzied waltz and the actors – now exhausted, sweaty and bruised, but still hyperactive and wide-eyed – whirled around the dance floor, and dropped dead one by one, until our MC confronted his final guest – the Red Death himself, dressed in a black blood splattered cape with a death’s mask… and black out.

The cool kids really in the know booked a ticket for a Friday or Saturday night, where there was an after hours party/rave/cabaret. But since it was a Wednesday, and we were both exhausted, Kate and I handed in our beak masks, ran out into the comforting chill of Wandsworth (and the 20th century) and dragged ourselves home for a restorative drink.

In the final analysis, Masque was stunning spectacle, and I’ve seldom been more fully absorbed into a piece of theatre. Ultimately, though, the result was more like a theme park ride or wandering around a particularly interactive installation, or just a really well art-directed dance party. Having the story strands unravel around you made them feel real and sensorily alive – but ultimately, they were just fragments of action that you may have been lucky enough to catch, or unlucky enough to keep missing. While I’m more than relaxed with a theatre philosophy that lets its audience discover the action, it’s possible that you could have a really shit couple of hours wandering around in the dark bumping into things and looking for the Exit signs. Then again, it seems difficult to consider how you could stage-manage an audience: giving out maps or having intercoms announcing “Mutilation of Gothic Bride NOW taking place in Bedroom Three, and Orgy now on in the Ballroom” would have definitely numbed our creepy sense of disorientation that gave Masque most of its power. Punchdrunk’s attention to visual detail was extraordinary, and their creation of genuine Gothic horror and suspense was masterful, and for that, they deserve endless applause – and maybe some sun, a back rub and a nice lie down.

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