Site-specific specialists Punchdrunk have followed last year’s award-winning production of Faust, played out across the five stories of a disused warehouse in Wapping, with a new Edgar Allan Poe-inspired installation that has transformed Battersea Arts Centre, where it opened on Tuesday 2 October 2007 (previews from 17 September) and is booking until 12 January 2008.
The Masque of the Red Death takes its title from Poe’s 1842 short story of the same name, in which a thousand nobles attend a masquerade ball in a walled abbey in an attempt to escape the plague. However, Punchdrunk’s piece is based on a collection of nine Poe stories in total, also including The Fall of the House of Usher and The Black Cat.
On entering the installation, theatregoers, for whom evening dress is optional, are given masks to wear as they wander through BAC’s corridors for up to three hours, culminating with a cabaret in Prince Prospero’s Palace. The production is performed by a 28-strong company, directed by Felix Barrett and choreographed by Maxine Doyle.
Faust won both rave reviews as well as critical approval in the form of the Critics’ Circle Award for best design. With The Masque of the Red Death, critics were beguiled once again by the company’s ability to “totally” transform BAC into a “gothic palace of delights and surprises” as well as for the creation of such a sensual – and highly erotic – promenade experience. If there were caveats about lack of dramatic cohesion or macabre repetition, they didn’t prevent a fresh round of plaudits for the pioneering company’s new piece, which one reviewer hailed as “one of the most mind-blowingly imaginative pieces I have ever seen”.
Heather Neill on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Come with me, gentle reader, into the sinister, murky world of that master of horror, Edgar Allan Poe, as re-imagined by Punchdrunk … The company has joined forces with BAC to transform the whole of its Victorian Lavender Hill headquarters, the Old Town Hall … The result is a gothic palace of delights and surprises … You venture, silently, into darkness sparsely lit by flickering candles. Soon your senses are assailed … All this is wonderful, odd, sometimes irritating, quite often incomprehensible, maddening and magical … This is either a mind-expanding experience, full of wonders, set in a glorious other world full of fantastical detail or a muddled game masquerading as art. Your response will depend on what you bring to the evening. I’m inclined to the former, and no one can deny the energy and fearlessness of the 28-strong cast under Felix Barrett’s direction.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “I found myself propelled on a labyrinthine journey through BAC that was simultaneously intriguing, mystifying and exhausting. Not having seen the company's famous Faust, I greatly enjoyed the experience but without feeling I had glimpsed the future of theatre. What impressed me most about Felix Barrett's direction and design was the total transformation of this former Victorian town hall into a place of gothic strangeness … But what of the dramatic action? Drawing on nine of the American fabulist's mysterious tales, it offers what you might call a theatrical Poe-pourri … I would enter only two caveats. The evening's appeal is almost entirely sensory: it leaves the heart and mind untouched. And, whereas the joy of most theatre is that one participates in a collective experience, here the stress is on individually determined journeys … But the whole event is exuberantly performed by a committed company … I still see this kind of magical mystery tour as an alternative to, rather than a substitute for, conventional drama, but, at its best, the evening eerily embodies Poe's twilit world of madness, cruelty and premature confinement.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “There’s something deeply disturbing going on at the old Battersea Town Hall, and my nerves are shot to shreds. The Punchdrunk company … are back to reveal yet more of their twisted dramatic imagination. They have taken over Edward Mountford’s spookily labyrinthine 1891 municipal building … and turned the whole place into a thrilling, chilling celebration of the tormented genius of Edgar Allan Poe … Because you are masked, you feel as though you have been granted a Harry Potter cloak of invisibility. There’s no embarrassment about getting up close to the performers … The whole journey proves even more addictive, the dramatic moods sharper, the choreography (by Maxine Doyle) more disturbing, while the grand finale is an absolute blast.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “I have never had a first-night experience like this … Parts of theatregoers that are never reached let alone touched on a normal night at the theatre were fingered last night. I was caught in the midst of Punchdrunk's The Masque of the Red Death, a highly successful attempt to plunge participating audiences into the horrors of Edgar Allan Poe's plague, ghost and murder-ridden stories … The musty air was full of baleful screams, portentous music, striking clocks, maidens writhing in pain and sinister 19th-century gentlemen prowling … The climactic, liberating finale snatched us from such flamboyant melodramatics to a masked ball where Death itself collapses. Young audiences adore these London Dungeon-style theatrics but after the similarly styled Faust, the company seems caught in a brilliant gothic horror rut. Punchdrunk should use its rare, evocative gifts for some serious, epic business - Britain, say, on the verge of war in 1939 - rather than brilliantly indulging its love of the macabre.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent (five stars) – “This evening was for me a bizarre progression from embarrassment to admonishment to astonishment and then to sky-high elation … I was already in quite a dislocated mood when I arrived at the BAC for The Masque of the Red Death, which proved to be one of the most mind-blowingly imaginative pieces I have ever seen … The inspired makers of the piece have transformed the old Battersea Town Hall into a spooky, inexhaustibly intricate warren of lamp-lit interiors and cabinets of curiosities … Immersive theatre is not a new thing, but Punchdrunk take it to a level of quite vertiginous virtuosity as various stories (most of them involving madness and sex) leak into one another in elaborate, beautifully furnished domestic rooms that reek of eros and insanity … It's a show that sends its fingers rippling up the full keyboard of sexuality .. This is a piece that would have brought out the bisexual in Maria Von Trapp … The show brings to triumphant completion a certain type of site-specific theatre and starts a new experiment that leaves you trembling with anticipation.”
Sam Marlowe in The Times (four stars) – “Once engaged with the spectacle, you are quickly drawn into it … You are a guest at the ill-fated ball of the title tale, which climaxes with a wild, whirling danse macabre that ends, in an extraordinary coup de théâtre, with the startling appearance of Death himself. Masque doesn’t match Faust for sheer scale or surprise – it’s difficult, in this familiar building, to forget where you are, despite the meticulously detailed and deliciously creepy environments the company has created. And the repetitive motif of pairs of actors flinging one another about on beds in a choreographed frenzy of lust, rage, madness or terror is overused. Yet there’s nothing else in British theatre quite like a Punchdrunk show; this one unleashes whole graveyards of gleeful ghosts to make mischief in the imagination of the willing participant.”
- by Terri Paddock