Art & Culture

Punchdrunk for the Masque of the Red Death

masque of the red death

If theatre is to survive, it needs to evolve and grow with the times in which we live.

I often harp on about how theatre needs to embrace new technologies and formats if it’s to overcome becoming a heritage industry. It has to breathe and live, not stagnate in the realm of being viewed solely for educational purposes or on the basis of implied ‘cultural merits’.

I usually dislike a lot of interactive theatre as it can tend to be too forceful, putting people on the spot when they don’t want to be.

the Battersea Arts CentreOver the past several years however, new forms have been emerging with gentler ways in which audiences interact with performers and the worlds they create. This is wherein my training lies and what a lot of pieces I’ve worked on in the past have been like.

There are some really exciting and innovative companies currently gaining momentum right now. Some of them I’ve had the privilege of working with such as the excellent Lab Theatre Collective and creative HalfCut.

The Grand Hall Finale during Masque of the Red DeathOne company that has taken their special brand of immersive theatre from Europe to North America is Punchdrunk Theatre.

They play in the mixing of mediums – always a grand spectacle of theatre, music, dance and cabaret. I was pretty gutted to miss their current show in NYC when I was in town for the Blogcademy, as it was sold out.

If you’re anywhere near New York, and able to get a ticket, I urge you to go and see Sleep No More, which is only booking through February 9th, 2013.

Based on Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, the show is home entirely in the McKittrick Hotel and is a site specific, immersive piece dubbed “A Film Noir Shadow of Suspense”.

I’ve seen work by Punchdrunk Theatricals in the past, the memory of those performances are burnt so vividly in my mind.

When I was working at the BAC – Battersea Arts Centre, Punchdrunk had a residency in the building and had taken over the whole once Victorian Town Hall turned BAC to create an Edgar Allan Poe inspired world.

Punchdrunk - the Masque of the Red Death at the BACBased on The Masque of the Red Death (the show, also of the same name) it was so much more than just that one Poe story, instead taking characters from all of his works and letting them loose together, running around in a mad “Edgar Allan Pot-pourri of Eldritch dark imaginings”.

For the duration of The Masque of the Red Death you were left to wander the entire BAC building, where you would follow actors through the space, stumbling on different story lines, and possibly invited to one on one performances in locked rooms.
All audience members were given masks to wear (Plague Masks to be specific), and in wearing those masks became part of the performance as revellers at the ball. The masks allowed for anonymity and quite a few celebrities attended, mingling with the rest of the audience as they could be incognito.

Masque of the Red Death Set Design DetailPhoto: Deano

The set was highly detailed. I enjoyed simply sitting in different rooms taking in the loving care with which the production team had created this world, and in addition people watching, observing how other audience members were reacting to what was going on.

My praise, is not say that this production was without its faults – I was lucky enough to be working at the BAC so was able to attend the show several times. Because of this I could cotton onto certain patterns and figure out when various events would take place and where in the building. Due to the popularity of the piece it was
sold out for months and actually had an extended run.

For this reason, a number of audience members complained that they were wandering around the building for a time on their own looking for something to watch besides other audience members. This was especially unfortunate if you had this experience when you heard about events other people had been able to catch, but that’s part of the nature of the piece and the whole mad chance of it all. Every time was different and so unique. A perfect moment, never to be duplicated.
Forget Your Worries at the Palais Royale - BACPhoto: goreckidawn

The show ran straight for several hours, with people being let in at intervals. A main area was transformed into the Palais Royale. This was the only place in the building where the audience could take off their masks. It also helped that this was the bar where you could also take a break and sit down, watch a music hall show with different acts and drink absinthe or whatever took your fancy.

Again though, as much as I loved it for being absolutely beautiful and how fantastic the world created was, there was a bit lacking. Theatre doesn’t have to be character led, or text based, but I think one critic, Matt Wolf of the Guardian UK brought up a fair point –

The Masque of the Red Death, which I sought out last weekend, pleased at last at the opportunity to experience the work of Punchdrunk. Three hours later, I stumbled out of BAC not punch-drunk but weary after such a lengthy immersion in a cultural installation nominally devoted to the works of Edgar Allan Poe. (Again, one wonders whether anyone not already versed in the author’s macabre work would understand those aspects of the piece at all.)”.

A fan of Poe’s work, at times I had to explain to a friend when drinking at the Palais as to what was going on, and what she’d seen and the different connections.

That said though, I love the idea of taking over a space and really going full-out on the design and making an actual world for people to step into and walk around in, which I think Punchdrunk does with great success.

Above – A Clip of the Finale in the Grand Hall.

I can only hope with the popularity of Sleep No More, that there’s a more in store for Punchdrunk in the future, and hopefully on North American shores as well!

For some additional photos, check out Steve Forrest’s photos from the New York Times, they’re absolutely fantastic and really capture the performance well!

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