Kaywa Kapers
London Film Festival 2007

The Masque Of The Red Death

Disabled toilet, Battersea Arts Centre, 8:44pm. And some dick in a mask.I think I've worked out how Punchdrunk do it. Whenever you attend one of their theatrical productions, you have to wear one of these plastic masks all the way through it. It has a curious psychological effect on you as an audience member - and we'll get back to that later - but nobody ever mentions the physical effect it has on you. The mask can be a little uncomfortable, particularly if you're trying to wear glasses underneath it: and I've found that on both occasions I've watched a Punchdrunk show wearing one, it's pinched my nose so tightly that I've had to spend the entire performance breathing through my mouth.

You see what they've done there? It's artificially simulated awe.

Mind you, it helps that they're the best in the world at what they do, too.

What Punchdrunk do, as I suggested when I reviewed their 2006 production of Faust, is 'art installations with a plot': taking over an entire building, filling it with scenes and environments relating to the topic at hand, and allowing the audience to explore them at their own pace. This year, they've chosen to adapt Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque Of The Red Death, and have taken over the whole of Battersea Arts Centre to do it. For those of you who wondered how Punchdrunk could possibly follow Faust, rest assured that this production does everything the previous one did, and with the added bonus of being bloody terrifying to boot.

As before, a plot summary would be worthless here: everybody sees an entirely different show. You're handed a mask at the door, told a few basic ground rules, and directed down a dimly-lit passageway: from then on, you're pretty much on your own. You wander from room to room, and it's down to pure luck what you get to see. If you're lucky, you'll get to see some of the cast performing: if you're really lucky, you'll find yourself completely alone in a room, with the freedom to explore the astonishing amount of detail that's been lavished on the production design.

This is all pretty much what you got with Faust, but there's evidence that some of the earlier production's weaknesses have been noted and worked on for Red Death. The main issue many people had with Faust was that it was impossible to discern a coherent narrative from the random collection of scenes an audience member would experience. Poe's short story, on the other hand, has a single simple idea at its core - extreme decadence being punished by death - and is thus more conducive to the series of variations on the theme that are displayed here. Besides, it gradually transpires that situations and characters from several of Poe's other stories are weaving in and out of the proceedings, so you quickly get used to the idea of small bits of narrative bouncing off each other but never quite connecting.

Narrative shouldn't be your primary concern going into this show, anyway: not when the overall atmosphere is so exquisitely rich. The masks play a large part in this (and it's fun to see that the odd one or two audience members who refuse to wear them are generally ostracised by the cast). The mask removes the distraction of the other people watching the action at close quarters with you, but also emboldens you to do things you wouldn't do if you were recognisable. For example, I saw one girl literally crawling up to an open grave, to check if its inhabitant was still alive. Add to that the detailed design, the gloriously sepulchral lighting, and - something I hadn't really appreciated in Faust - the overwhelming use of sound and music, and you end up with a wholly unique experience.

And everyone's experience is literally unique to them. There was at least one major area of the building that I never found at all, but I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time for a couple of large-scale setpieces. The hospital ward that turned into a banquet-cum-orgy: the events that led up to that girl crawling up to the open grave, and the results of her investigation: the spellbinding climax, notable for its choreography of both dancers and audience. And most spine-tingling of all, how I ended up joining nine other people for a seance in a small dark room. We each wrote down a question to ask the spirits, a test was performed to ensure they were friendly, then all the lights were turned out, and...

Well, there's only one way you'll find out. Not that it'll be easy - the show currently runs to January 12th 2008, and is already sold out. But there should be returns available on the door on the night, and it's possible they might extend the run beyond that end date. It's worth whatever effort it takes you to get into The Masque Of The Red Death: there's nothing artificial about the awe you'll feel here.

Comments

Suzanne Vega Fanclub

This was discussed on BBC 2's Newsnight Late Review, and the general gist seemed to be that (unlike for you) the action was always happening in another room.

Sounds good though, and I will try to catch it

SpankTM

The Masque Of The Red Death has just been extended to April 12th 2008. Book now, or be damned for all eternity.

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/tickets/production.aspx?performanceNumber=4431

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