Posts Tagged ‘Punchdrunk Productions’

Guest Review – The Duchess of Malfi – Punchdrunk and E.N.O. on location

July 18, 2010

(There is now also a mini-review of this show done by this blog’s usual author available here if you would like to read it.)

Promenade is all the rage, remember? And when it comes to promenade performances, Punchdrunk productions are acknowledged masters in creating sprawling, immersive environments around a story, and so the announcement that they would be collaborating with English National Opera on a new production of The Duchess of Malfi this year, it was clearly going to be event of the season. Demand was so high the day tickets went on sale that the E.N.O. ticketing system crashed, and the entire run sold out in short order.

So how is it? Well, keep an eye on the classifieds: you may see more tickets going cheaper as the run goes on.

It’s the standard Punchdrunk rules: audience members are given white masks to wear and are free reign to wander a bulding full of meticulously created environments which give various clues and information about the story, and often later become locations for specific scenes. Crew and ushers wear black masks, and performers are the only ones who have faces exposed.

This time the space fills a new-but-empty multifloor office building in the wilds of far East London. As usual, there is a forensic level of detail: notes left on tables and in drawers connect in fascinating ways; labels on medicine bottles are for characters we meet later; every love letter of hundreds crumpled in a corner is a genuine text, addressed to a different person. Where they’ve taken the time to fill the space, it is done with mind-bending completeness.

The problem, though, is that they’ve not been able to take the time everywhere. The building feels simply too big to fill. Empty space is used well in a few places, creating a grand sense of scale in a forest of trees, but elsewhere we find long stretches of nothing, which end up being reminders that we are just in an empty office building – particularly when in transit between floors, either via the internal stairwells or the elevators, both located in hallways which have been almost completely ignored.

As with most opera, it’s worth having an idea of the story beforehand, or at least the big idea. I think that’s key for any Punchdrunk production, actually, as it really helps to be able to put things back into context when you see them out of order. It adds to the experience. E.N.O. provides a synopsis on the website, but reading it after the fact I think huge sections of it are backstory which we never get in the performance. And there’s stuff which never quite made sense: There was something about lycanthopy going on in many of the notes and files found in the set dressings, which I saw incorporated visually in the performance but never really figured out. Librettist Ian Burton has distilled the entirety of the story into about 40 minutes total, presumably so they can run through it all twice before the finale. This is similar to the format Punchdrunk used for Masque of the Red Death, which gives the audience more opportunity to see more of the show. But as usual, things happen simultaneously, things appear and disappear (was that bar there the entire time? I’m sure I’d walked past that door before…) and there’s really no way you can or will see all of it, and it doesn’t actually matter.

Or does it?

The biggest question I had in thinking about this piece, before and after seeing it, is whether opera can work in a non-linear environment.

Now, I found this musically challenging in the first place. The production features a new score by Torsten Rasch which is largely in a twiddly, post-modern style I find unmusical and grating anyway – most notably the seemingly random octave leaps up and down, within a single sung line. Why? I admit I’ve not studied atonal composition theory so I’ve never really understood this particular school of music, but you know what? I don’t think I should need graduate-level academic knowledge to enjoy something created for public performance. And, while our singers were quite good (most memorably Claudia Huckle as the duchess and Andrew Watts as the falsetto Cardinal brother Ferdinand), more often than not the vocal fireworks meant I lost words and frequently entire lines of text, and I ultimately found myself frustrated, with very little verbal information about the story I was supposed to be following. There’s a reason E.N.O. still runs supertitles at the Coliseum even though their productions are sung in English.

That said, I also think there’s an inherent conflict in the structural requirements of an opera – or at least of this score – and the free-form, choose-your-own-adventure format of the production. A Punchdrunk narrative provides few clear stopping and starting points but instead creates a sense that something is always happening, and as a viewer you step in and out of the continuum as you move through the world they create. If you’re ever feeling out of the loop at a Punchdrunk show, the thing to do is just follow a character and interesting things will happen along the way. Music, by contrast, fundamentally relies on developing and exploring themes in a time-based, linear fashion. Following the tuba player between orchestral movements just doesn’t have the same effect. Watching the musicians set up and play kills the whole feeling that something interesting is happening elsewhere. It’s clearly where we’re meant to be at that moment in time, and that is in direct conflict with the best part of a Punchdrunk experience.

After roaming around for a couple hours, I decided I was done. I knew they’d be running things twice, and as I stumbled into a scene I’d already seen, I decided to head for the door. I didn’t like the music, I wasn’t getting much story, random moments of “neat” were few and far between, and combined with a long journey back to civilization it just wasn’t adding up to making me want to stay longer.

Heading down and trying to backtrack to where we came in, I was turned back at the next-to-last door, with the usher saying they were just about to do the finale so he needed me to go back in. I couldn’t leave! That unfortunately took me from “done” to “downright grumpy,” but I figured at least I knew it would soon be over.

As happened at last year’s Masque of the Red Death, the finale takes place in a space we’ve not seen before, large enough for everyone to be all at once and for a truly “big” finish – in this case a sizeable warehouse attached to the building. And, as I could have expected, the finale is indeed marvelously theatrical, the few bits of story I did have kind of came together into a clearer view of the whole, and there is a truly grand moment of spectacle. But it wasn’t enough of a payoff for me, and I didn’t dally after the lights went up.

All due credit for a valiant effort at something extraordinary. You can’t win if you don’t play, as they say, but for this gamble we get nothing extraordinary, or even particularly new. If you’ve seen Punchdrunk before, you’ve seen this before, and done better.

(This is for a performance which took place on July 13, 2010. Performances continue through July 24. Though the info page on the ENO site says it’s completely sold out, the ticketing system is showing some availability, and there’s of course gumtree…)

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Punchdrunk Production’s Masque of the Red Death – Battersea Arts Centre

January 6, 2008

Sold out as it was months in advance, I was quite excited to finally have the date arrive for which I’d bought tickets to see Masque of the Red Death at the Battersea Arts Centre (especially since it’s near the Clapham Common train station, an easy five minutes by train from my place). I had some idea of what to expect after having been to see the same company’s Faust the year before, but in some ways I really had no idea what was going to happen. I hadn’t prepared by reading any Poe, I hadn’t read other people’s reviews, I just didn’t know what was going to happen other than that there would be different rooms and I would need to explore. And, I was firmly hoping, there would be a bar.

We arrived for the 7:15 show – I wanted the earlier tickets because I knew there would be too much for me to see in the time given. We had a group of 10, including my Streatham pack of pals, my houseguest, Wechsler and my spousal unit. Once we had masks on (Venetian-style white face masks, required for all audience members), it became difficult to tell them apart from everyone else (Simon’s orange hair and bald spot; Paul’s fluffy black hair and leather trenchcoat; Wechsler’s Cyberdog’s necklace), though since I was wearing my red silk Victorian bustle outfit I was pretty easy to pick out. We were split up almost immediately, and while I managed to keep together with my three, the rest of the group only really came back together at some magical point in The Golden Bug, the bar slash music hall stuffed up a stairwell in the building. This bit was really great, as two of us were called upon during a “magic” show in which Roderick Usher “read our minds” – fascinating when just a short time earlier we’d seen him upstairs having fits while his houseguest attempted to rouse him with poetry.

During the three hours we were inside the building I completely failed to view all of the rooms of the building. In part, this was because different rooms seemed to open and close at different times, on a schedule that was a mystery to me. There were also rooms that had entry restricted to just a few guests. I was lucky enough to get into two of these: the library, in which a skull talked to four people about our impending deaths; and “the scientist’s office,” where I had a most peculiar encounter with an older actor who asked to speak to me privately. He chased the other visitors out of the room, then locked the door and began to address me as his “long lost sister, Rose.” He poured me a glass of absinthe, asked me to remove my mask, then proceeded to unburden himself of his guilt over the bizarre experiments he had performed – and the punishment he anticipated in the afterlife. He begged my forgiveness, but I told him that as I was dead, it wasn’t really possible for me to help him. When pressed, I said that I’d lost my memory, and thus could easily forgive him as I remembered nothing. He thanked me, then unlocked the door and ran off. Wow! What an intense moment! I tried to figure out what Poe story featured a character of this sort the next day, but it remains a mystery. And, I’m afraid, in my excitement I dropped the entire contents of my wallet in this room, which rather dampened the post-show cocktail hour.

What’s really odd is that every person I went with seemed to see a different show. It was obvious to me that they were doing something similar to Faust, with a repetition of the main “story” during the course of the night and then one “grand finale” (of course this took place in a ballroom), but everyone I talked to saw different things – a woman murdering a doll, a man seducing a seamstress, the apothecary that gave scented herbs to the visitors, a strange meal in the dining room (with musicians – how did I not hear them), and on and on. I even had one person say that she and the person she was with saw totally different things happening in the same room.

That said, I really want to come back and see this show again, and see the room and stories I missed. It’s clear that it’s more of a tribute to Poe than a recreation of one story, as I thought it would be, and I would benefit from trying to see more rather than trying to make up for my mistake in not following the primary “story” line at Faust – as there is not one in this show. Great show, absolutely worth seeing, don’t miss it!

(This review is for the show that took place on Sunday, December 30th, 2007.)