Review: Masque of the Red Death, The Telegraph

by | 4 Oct, 2007 | Press

The Masque of the Red Death: A Night of Delicious Terror

Charles Spencer | October 2007

Do you mind if I have a quiet sit down and a cup of hot, sweet tea? There’s something deeply disturbing going on at the old Battersea Town Hall, and my nerves are shot to shreds.

The Punchdrunk company – which deservedly won a Critics’ Circle Award last year for Faust, a stunning performance-art piece that took place across five floors of an abandoned document depository in darkest Wapping – are back to reveal yet more of their twisted dramatic imagination.

They have taken over Edward Mountford’s spookily labyrinthine 1891 municipal building, more recently an arts centre where I have endured some of the worst nights of my reviewing career, and turned the whole place into a thrilling, chilling celebration of the tormented genius of Edgar Allan Poe.

On arrival (in evening dress, preferably), you are issued with a carnival mask and a coin with which you will later be able to buy a cloak. You are then advised to set off, alone and masked, to explore.

There are no guides to tell you where to go, no way of knowing what you will find, see, touch, smell, hear or taste, and it would be a great shame to give too much away, because surprise is one of the main ingredients of a three-hour show that often feels more like a disconcerting acid trip than a piece of theatre.

One journeys through dark corridors, and up and down steep back staircases, pushing nervously at doors to discover where they will lead. Sometimes you encounter an empty room, designed in meticulously detailed 19th-century style, perhaps with a coal fire burning, or a recently rumpled bed.

At other moments you find yourself plunged right into the heart of some vivid drama of perverse infatuation or overwhelming despair.

Throughout the promenade, you discover splintered fragments of Poe’s dark short stories – a heart being removed from a horribly frail old man as he sleeps, a desperate bridal night that turns into one of the most disturbing erotic ballets I have ever seen, a dinner party populated only by the insane.

Because you are masked, you feel as though you have been granted a Harry Potter cloak of invisibility. There’s no embarrassment about getting up close to the performers, or of following them to wherever they lead you next.

At one stage, I suddenly found myself standing in the wings of a music hall, but it took me another half-hour to find the actual entrance to the red-velvet palace of varieties, where one is allowed to remove one’s mask, have a drink and watch the acts, before venturing off for further horrors of immurement, murder and marital strife.

In all there are 26 performers to follow from dank basements to cramped garrets, and among the highlights of my trip were a fabulously sinister opium den and an encounter with an exceedingly alluring female pharmacist who drew me to her and whispered intimately in my ear: “Only the saved pass through these doors; this is for your protection,” as she pressed crushed herbs into the palm of my hand.

There may be nothing here that quite rivals the Edward Hopper-inspired American town, complete with functioning cinema and diner, which Punchdrunk’s brilliant artistic director and designer Felix Barrett created in Faust. But the whole journey proves even more addictive, the dramatic moods sharper, the choreography (by Maxine Doyle) more disturbing, while the grand finale is an absolute blast.

I hate reviews that bossily tell you to book now. But book now! Eighty per cent of the tickets have already been sold, and you’ll kick yourself if you miss it.

Read article here

Share this

Related articles

Interview with Maxine Doyle

Interview with Maxine Doyle

Choreographer Maxine Doyle talks about her work ’15 Minutes’ performed in the NDT 2 programme ‘The beauty of it all’

Pin It on Pinterest