I arrived at the Battersea Arts Centre with the hype surrounding punchdrunk and their co-production with the BAC, The Masque of the Red Death, in the back of my mind. Was this really going to be the hottest ticket of the year? Well maybe, but that doesn’t mean I’d necessarily like it (and indeed much of the run was sold out before the production opened).
An immersion experience, like the two pervious shows by the company that I have seen (The Firebird Ball at an old brick works, and Faust last year at a Wapping warehouse). Both those productions were great experiences. As before, you are left to wander around the large building (Battersea’s Old Town Hall has been totally transformed by a truly brilliant design team), exploring dark corridors and finding all sorts of surprises in the meticulously decorated and furnished rooms on your journey. You encounter actors from time to time (maybe a quarter of the two hours of exploring), however, often they are being followed by a great many people, which makes it difficult and rather distancing, but there are the odd personal moments, especially if you’re lucky, which I didn’t seem to be. The acting is earnest meets camp and necessarily broad, raised voices and hand wringing were something I saw quite a bit of, as well a being whispered a rather arch ‘warning’ by a seductive actress. When you have no real characterisation or ability to know that your audience is going on a narrative journey with you (or control that journey), things are vague and anarchic, and there is not much else you can do (and the mostly young company seem very good at gothic generalising). So clearly the narrative of evening (several Poe stories in this case, so even more bitty and unrelated) is certainly not the point of the evening (and you shouldn’t be worried about storylines or consistency, just see what you can), but the atmosphere and sensory experience triumph. I investigated one sumptuous and totally empty bedroom for 10 minutes before a fellow explorer entered (my cue to exit), I read letters, looked in books, opened drawers, lay on the bed even. I visited opium dens, graveyards, gained a cloak for a farthing from a lugubrious shopkeeper, and even visited the dressing rooms at the Palais Royal (where you can open a door and glimpse the back of the performers).
There is also a marvellous red silk lined theatre called the Palais Royale created in the building, here you can take off your otherwise obligatory face mask and have a drink whilst watching the jolly variety acts (or the not so jolly, the mine artist and opera singers are delightfully mournful). This is all highly entertaining (and well performed), with the acts performing for shot stints, so you’ll never get bored. You can drop in on the show several times during the evening to rest and recuperate from your trek around the building (which you should explore alone, meet friends in here).
At around 9.30pm, you are summoned to the grand finale, the dance of the title. This is spectacular, almost a modern dance piece with of sexy bodies writing about and then falling seductively dead, you can then have a few drinks or head home (there are even club nights on the weekend), and its all very chic, but far too hip for me. The whole experience feels a bit like an event for the cool kids and those ‘in the know’, the public school PR people usher important people past you in the queue at the start of the evening and people in the bar are all wannabe conceptual something or other or models. Nothing wrong with that, but the event does have a calculated air of exclusivity.
When I left the building, I’d passed an evening pleasantly, I’d even had fun, but I wasn’t moved or challenged by the piece at all. There was no substance for me to get my teeth into. Untimely I feel that The Masque of the Red Death is very much style over substance, theatre that is undemanding (except perhaps if you’re infirm or physically disabled, therefore excluded) and has a cachet amongst the right people, it conforms to the religion of non text based physically inspired theatre. Anyone from a group of hyper teenagers to jaded middle managers on a night out would happily enjoy this show; they may retain a sharp visual image of the night, but like me, not much else.