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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Masque of the Red Death

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. — Edgar Allan Poe
The Masque of the Red Death
Scene from The Masque of the Red Death (Photo: Benedict Johnson)
Punchdrunk takes theatregoers on an individual and unique journey. As I was accosted by a Victorian street villain, who put his arm round my throat and told me not to say a word and not to move an inch, I thought how grateful I was to be inside Battersea Arts Centre and not outside on Lavender Hill on my way back to Clapham Junction Station. Still I felt that frisson of danger, and in the next few seconds another man attacked the one holding me and started a fight, allowing me to break free. The ruffians struggled with each other on the magnificent marble stair case while I reflected on the serendipity of my narrow escape.

BAC, the old town hall buildings on Lavender Hill, lately an Arts Centre, have been transformed by Punchdrunk, the experiential theatre company which brings us a detailed installation lit by exciting and dramatic events. The theatre architect Steve Tomkins (he who turned the King's Cross bus garage into the Almeida's temporary home) is charged with reworking BAC and the Old Town Hall buildings as a flexible creative space. The company has opened up many of the offices that were behind the town hall with their nineteenth century fireplaces, even the basement which now serves as a crypt, to create the detailed setting for several stories from the pen of Edgar Allan Poe. These stories will change as other theatre companies are invited to bring their own interpretation of a Poe story to BAC. I hear that Punchdrunk's production of Faust is on its way to New York, so New Yorkers buy your tickets early because like everything Punchdrunk does here, it will sell out fast.

As before, the audience is masked in these white, moose nosed, Venetian Carnival type masks, and given half an old penny to spend inside on something to protect one. In a room we are cloaked in velvet by a silent actor who engages us with his eyes and gestures. The masks, combined with the cloaks, do serve to disguise people because this is essentially an experience you want to discover alone. I found the changing rooms behind the main stage but couldn't find how to get into the main stage area where a Victorian music hall type show was taking place. I went through doors that said No Entry and found myself on the wrong side of an impenetrable red curtain. I edged along the wall conscious of the performance on the other side of the curtain where someone called Usher was in a mind reading act. Eventually I found the way into what was the main house at the Arts Centre by going up another flight of stairs, but the music hall act and bar didn't hold me for long because I wanted to continue my own personal adventure rather than to watch a show. I wanted to discover things by myself. By now I am cursing myself for not having been better prepared with a knowledge of the more obscure works, the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe or just not having read the programme in full first. But maybe that is to miss the point. The elaborately detailed vignettes you experience with Punchdrunk are not jigsaw pieces to be slotted into other information but stand alone to immerse you in the world of the Gothic.

I followed a man into the crypt where he pulled the body of a woman from a grave. I saw another man, after a fight, murder a woman and struggle to carry her lifeless body down the back stairs. In what used to be BAC's bar, a room that might be an asylum hospital ward saw the beds locked together to form a huge dining table. The room was soon filled by music and bizarre diners whose orgy has a sinister ending. Again on the stairs a beautiful woman struggles with a man, this choreographed with great style. We stumbled on an opium den where a visitor was initiated in the joys of the Orient complete with Chinese lanterns and red velvet cushions. In some rooms you will find only a fire burning, a velvet winged arm chair and Victorian pictures, books and ornaments. The perfumery has rows and rows of ornate glass bottles. The one room working class tenements have lines of washing hanging everywhere, they are grimy with poverty. The magnificent main staircase has been surrounded with wide tree trunks and life size statues look down from the first floor. The audience are encouraged to wear evening dress to suit the gothic extravaganza. You will find few words spoken in this evening but listen for the sound of laughter or music or doors slamming to join the action. I could hear the swish of Poe's pendulum from several rooms but tantalisingly couldn't find it. The clock chimes on the hour as in the story of The Masque of the Red Death.

The Masque of the Red Death doesn't have the same unity of narrative that we found in the Faust but it still has the power to discomfort, although the Battersea premises are a lot warmer and less disconcerting than the Wapping disused warehouse. There were moments when I almost screamed as someone jumped out from the darkness. Later in the evening the audience is brought together for an energy driven ball room dance scene of spectacular choreography as we await the entrance of the figure of the Red Death. There are workshops, lots of school events and Friday and Saturday Night Late parties with live music at BAC during the stay of The Masque of the Red Death. This creative theatre experience will thrill with the unexpected.

Inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe
Directed and designed by Felix Barrett
Directed and choreographed by Maxine Doyle

With: Katy Balfour, Matthew Blake, Rebecca Botten, Adam Burton, River Carmalt, Meline Danielewicz, Sarah Dowling, Conor Doyle, Kath Duggan, Hector Harkness, Jack Laskey, Tom Lawrence, Jane Leaney, Maya Lubiinsky, Robert McNeill, Raquel Messeguer, Fernanda Prata, Patrick Romer, Vinicius Salles, Terry Victor
Lighting: Matt Prentice
Sound: Stephen Dobbie
Costume: Tina Bicåt
Magic: Scott Penrose
Running time: Three hours promenade
Box Office: 020 7223 2223 ( BAC ) or online via the National Theatre Website
Booking to 12th January 2007 but sold out. Tickets available for the Red Death Lates Party only.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 3rd October performance at BAC, Lavender Hill, Battersea, London, SW11 (Rail: Clapham Junction or buses)

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©Copyright 2007, Elyse Sommer.
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