Capsule: The Masque of The Red Death
To the Battersea Arts Centre, then, in the driving rain, and roll up roll up for the great po(st)-mo(dern)-go(thic)-prom(enade)-show that is Punchdrunk’s The Masque of the Red Death.
The acclaimed company has taken over the old, Victorian era Battersea Town Hall for this experiment in what some might call social media: the crowd is collaborator and participant in this theatre 2.0 production. But even though there is no stage as such, and performers and audience intermingle around the building, the third wall is still there. The audience wears masks, hook-nosed and alabaster white; discomfort is part of the price – but at least my glasses could be slung on too. Those who had followed the exhortation to come in evening dress gave the whole evening the air of an up-market murder mystery.
This is not a play, but a universe we enter. You see performance art, dance, revue, the graphic cues of burlesque, magic tricks, cabaret, the visual signals of 1840s Paris, and lots of red, blood red all over the place, but very little by way of straight, linear theatre as you make your way through the highly-stylised rooms. A tricky task, btw – beware heels and long, flowing capes up narrow, black stairwells. Lovers and friends were identifying themselves by rucksacks, badges and A1 envelopes.
You’ll really get the most out of The Masque if you know your Poe; otherwise you flail about trying to hold on wisps of stories and fragments of dialogue, which may or may not go somewhere. And it really is physical theatre. I was grabbed by the ear twice: once by a woman in a shawl, who told me to go and hold a woman in a muslin dress, as that’s the only way she would wake up. She did, but only after a delay which made me fear I had failed; the second was when a chap called William told me to follow him, asked me where William was and then challenged me to a duel. I told him I had no sword. He laughed, and then killed himself in front of a mirror. (Does that mean I won?)
Not everything is authentic, mind. Lily Allen could be spotted at the bar of the Paris Revue, where the absinthe was watered down, and the Maurice Chevalier impersonator looked more like Kris Marshall. And in a swathe of pages I picked up, that had fallen out of a book lying on a table in a parlour, was the sentence “The BEA flight landing that morning.” Poe was good, but not that good.
The crux is this: you dip in and out of the web of stories, so all is hyper-textual and free-flowing. But this means you’re not as emotionally involved as you could be. Immersed yes, thanks to the music and the lights and the décor and the atmosphere. But you’re still a voyeur.
And after a three hours or so, the bells ring insistently, and we are told to flee flee flee, and we do, into ballroom, where a dance of death is performed under a shower of red tickertape. And thence, into the rain, again.