Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A masked ball of the most unusual magnificence...

After Faust last year, which took place in a warehouse in Wapping, the recent immersive theatre performance of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death at Battersea Arts Centre, which has just finished it’s run, is another amazing Punchdrunk production. Just as with their treatment of Faust’s multi-linear storyline, the site-specific play is certainly breathtaking to behold in visual terms: some sixty rooms take you through the story of Prince Prospero’s fight in his abbey against the advancing plague of the Red Death, wherein the protagonist eventually falls dead at the feet of the disease, personified in human form by a mysterious guest shrouded in black during the masquerade ball. With the winter chill outside at that time, it seemed a perfect time to experience Allen Poe’s allegory supposedly about the inescapability of death.
The opulent surroundings of Battersea Arts Centre, with its grandiose chapel designs and balconies, certainly fit the gothic mis-en-scene. As with Faust, the mask wearing was compulsory, as you flitted between actors reciting lines and simply exploring the huge, cavernous maze of differently coloured rooms inside the BAC. On some four floors or so, the vast space took in different floors and rooms, including a huge bar on the top floor with cabaret, a live band, and belly dancing. Meanwhile, the main auditorium was done up brilliantly like a castle at the edge of a dark forest, bathed in blue light, with the actors wandering around you. It’s the attention to detail that’s so amazing: rooms done up intricately with nineteenth-century pianos, furniture, clocks, and pages of Poe’s writings stuck on the floor and walls; gangway corridors through white sheets; bedrooms with four-poster beds…Perhaps inevitably, the result of this overwhelming experience is that the visitor loses their way in following the story in a normal, linear manner; but the point is that Punchdrunk performances are designed as an immersive embracing of both location and story. During Faust I only half followed the story, being so enthralled with the different rooms and huge auditoriums in the Wapping warehouse; a similar principle operated at the BAC. The finale - where you ran through an incredible huge church-like area with high domes and ceilings from some bygone age – remained out of this world, topped off the ball and red confetti - the colour of blood. Beforehand, while walking the streets of east and south London in the winter dark, the title track from Burial’s Untrue played in my headphones. It’s disembodied voices and eerie industrial noises, where everything sounds submerged and muffled, fitted the scenery of late-night London perfectly, with its barely-lit alleys, Victorian houses and ghosts of centuries past - of the great plague, Shelley and Jack the Ripper. The creaking, deserted overtones and alienated voices that emerge in Burial’s music wouldn’t have been out of place as the soundtrack for the performance, in fact, with The Masque’s gothic, candlelit vibe and feeling of impending doom. There’s even a weird parallel wherein parts of Untrue remind me of the more subdued, bleak industrial noise soundscapes that Godspeed You! Black Emperor came out with on their first two albums, in-between the crashing guitar riffs and violins. Listen to the first album and the last five minutes of CD1 of Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven and you’ll see what I mean.

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