For many people, one of the theatrical highlights of last year was Punchdrunk’s production of Faust in a Wapping warehouse. Nearly everyone I spoke to who’d seen it, urged me to go. “You have to see this show,” they entreated. So when the announcement was made that Punchdrunk’s next project would be The Masque Of The Red Death, a staging of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe in Battersea Arts Centre, anticipation was ridiculously high, it seemed like the perfect marriage of company, location and subject matter.
And the results are indeed spectacular. Every spare corner of the BAC, a sprawling former Town Hall, has been put to use, every corridor and every stairwell inventively decorated. As you enter you are handed a white mask and told not to speak by a wide-eyed woman dressed in red and black. Large groups are encouraged to separate and explore on their own.
It’s a rather disconcerting experience, roaming the curtained corridors in the dim light, but also rather exhilarating. Wandering around the building, I encountered a perfumery, an opium den, an infirmary, a music hall, a dressing room festooned with corsets and pearls, and a crypt. The BAC’s grand central stairwell has become a haunting forest-like space. The attention to detail is superb and all the senses are pulled into play, with lighting and music and even odour, playing a part in the immersive experience.
Sometimes these spaces are empty, other times you come across scenes being played out: a macabre wedding, a woman clutching a heart in her hands, a fight between desperate lovers. Don’t expect too much narrative coherence, there is no real order and every experience is different. Indeed, while several people I know who have also seen the show, spoke of being beckoned into rooms by performers and of having personal magical experiences, I didn’t encounter this and a couple of times I found myself arriving in rooms just as a scene appeared to be finishing, which was rather frustrating. But then on another occasion I found myself and just two others having a story read to us in a bottle- lined room, which was admittedly rather special.
A confession. I didn’t quite make it to the end of the evening, when I gather there is a finale of sorts where the narrative strands come together. I had been feeling a bit under the weather all day beforehand and after over two hours on my feet the sense of disorientation and the heady fug of incense left me feeling a little unsteady and in need of some air, so I was forced to bow out. While I’m rather disappointed with myself for not sticking it out and I do wonder if the narrative tug of the thing had been just that teeny bit stronger, whether I would have sucked it up and persevered I think I spent enough time in there to get a good sense of the show. Certainly I did my best to explore every nook and cranny, but I don’t think I came close to fully encountering all there was to see.
It’s probably stating the obvious but to get the most out of this, you really need to be in the right mood, the right frame of mind, far more so than with a more conventional evening of theatre; you need to be an active participant, to explore and to embrace what the company is trying to do. It’s more demanding than most theatre but, if you’re open, also far more rewarding.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flaws. At times it can feel superficial and gimmicky, and rather too in love with its own perceived novelty it’s not as ground-breaking as it thinks it is – it also engages more on a sensory than intellectual level. But, for all that, I certainly intend to return if I can (it’s currently sold out but there is talk of releasing more tickets), to tackle what I expect will be an evolving, expanding production with a steadier head and a hardier heart I doubt I’ll be disappointed.