By Lyn Gardner | Thursday 19 October 2006
Punchdrunk’s latest piece of immersive theatre takes you to places you have never been before. Step through the doors of 21 Wapping Lane – a vast disused warehouse in the original Tobacco Dock – and suddenly London is very far away. Behind these doors lurks a strange parallel universe, a secret deep-south bar where the blues – the devil’s music – is played, and a place where a preacher raises hell, and Faust raises the devil.
Wander through the labyrinth of rooms over several floors and you may stumble across some true wonders: a high school Walpurgis night hop in full swing, a tiny candlelit chapel where the coffin of Gretchen’s baby is surrounded by lilies, a bar where Mephistopheles gives Faust a rejuvenating potion and he first spots Gretchen amid the orgy of churning witchy flesh. The performers appear and melt back into the shadows as if by magic.
This is not so much a performance as a puzzle, and you have to work quite hard to unlock it. Those who like to take their theatre sitting down and in easy-to-consume, bite-sized narrative chunks, or anyone with a fear of the dark, may find the evening makes them both frustrated and anxious. Following the show can be like chasing a dream that keeps dissolving and slipping out of sight.
There are two sensible approaches: You either treat the entire thing as a huge installation, wandering where you please and delighting in the sheer inventiveness and detail of the design (a noose hanging on a wall, a room full of strange spices, dead leaves and voodoo dolls, a forest of fir trees) and occasionally stumbling across actors. Or you can identify one of the protagonists – perhaps Gretchen or Faust – and follow them as they lead you on a merry dance throughout the building and enact key scenes.
Either approach requires stamina, a stout pair of shoes and the ability to use your own imagination to fill in the gaps. But if you put in the graft – and go on your own, not in a gaggle or a gang – the rewards are greater than anything Mephistopheles could ever offer.