Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842) is a dark tale of Bacchanalia in the face of plague. In a Gothically ornamented nutshell, the story goes something like this: Prince Prospero entertains a thousand of his friends with a masked ball in the eccentrically appointed apartments of his castellated abbey; Death infiltrates, and all perish. In Punchdrunk’s production Battersea Arts Centre becomes Prospero’s abbey and is dressed, basement to attic, as a labyrinthine set, its studios, bars, storerooms and corridors choked with swathes of velvet and the distressed props of faded decadence. The audience wear anonymous white masks and are invited to wander, seek out and invariably miss many of the dispersed but interconnecting narrative elements.
In the visual arts we are more than used to fragmented narrative – in fact, many insist that coherence and completion are anathema. For theatregoers, however, this fractured format would appear to be much more contentious, as the common expectation is still of a predominantly script-based play, favouring logical narrative and character development. This perception of theatre may exasperate those companies that do break with tradition, but while in the gallery it is the norm to forage around for meaning, in theatre it appears it is not. Punchdrunk describe their intention as being to reject ‘the passive obedience expected of audiences in conventional theatre’, and the masks do indeed embolden the forager/viewer to an extent, as it is much easier to try a prohibitive closed door or pluckily follow a character up the back stairs into what looks like an Oriental knocking shop when you have both permission and anonymity. But this does not quite result in the opposite of ‘passive obedience’, as the audience could instead be thought of as enacting a more insidious compliance, submissively performing a prescribed function. These sham Brechtian claims for audience empowerment recall a genre of fantasy books popular in the 1980s, where the reader could ‘decide’ which course the character takes, even though the author had already determined every possible outcome. This conflict between authorship and participation also strikes a chord with ongoing criticism of relational aesthetics, where engineered social situations present the illusion of liberalism while actually restricting any real reciprocity with the form of the piece.
The level of detail Punchdrunk bring to their production of The Masque of the Red Death is quite something though. The old pianos, plastic skulls and tarnished mirrors are clichéd almost to the point of pastiche, and yet the company’s unremitting attention to every surface is intoxicating. But imagine what would happen if an artist such as Mike Nelson or Christoph Büchel had devised the sets? Theatre could take much from the subtle perversity of such installations, where intangible atmosphere and implied narrative insinuate rather than dictate meaning. Both Nelson and Büchel’s installations orchestrate a complex psychological response, which, to varying degrees, is directed through an erudite range of cultural references in their ‘sets’; Punchdrunk’s, on the other hand, are limited to obvious theatrical signifiers. Similarly, many of the performances themselves are just the sort of swooning, hyperbolic stuff the visual art world hates. On the sweeping staircase of the building’s handsome entrance hall a forest has sprung up, where every so often a grand clock chimes and women in floaty gowns with heaving bosoms and men with powerful arms and wild hair prostrate themselves, cry in anguish and perform melodramatic rites. With darkened eyes and blood-red lips the characters out-ham the set, making the broad storyline – of Gothic decadence and decay – instantly recognizable and yet flattened into archetype.
Punchdrunk’s previous production, Faust (2006), was also a promenade performance, held in a series of vaults in London Bridge. This could, if one were ungenerous, smack of the formulaic, but the format has so much potential that it would be churlish to dismiss it as mere novelty. The range of encounters within The Masque of the Red Death is not as extensive as it might be, although there are moments when the pace changes and the sensation of chasing down the plot gives way to a different temporal effect altogether. There is a bar where a cabaret runs on a loop, for instance, and throughout there are rooms where the door is locked behind you and an intimate and complete narrative is delivered: a woman tells an anecdote about the Japanese detective story writer Edogawa Rampo, for instance, or a paper cut-out cinema presents a complete rendition of Poe’s bawdy zombie story ‘King Pest’ (1835). Again, though, an opportunity for perplexity or fascination at a different level is misspent on traditional narrative forms, whereas ontological fragmentation of another order altogether might better evoke the sinister world of Poe.