Punchdrunk vs. ENO – The Duchess of Malfi

Last night we went along to see The ENO/Punchdrunk co-production of The Duchess of Malfi at a remote office block in the east end of London. This was touted as one of the ‘must see’ events of the theatrical season in London, and caused the ENO’s ticketing server to crash quite horrendously when it went on sale – luckily I managed to grab four tickets in the melee, and now I really wish I’d gotten more as it was quite splendid.

For those of you not familiar with Punchdrunk, they formed in 2000 to create immersive theatrical experiences where the audience is expected to wander around, interact with the performance to some degree and to create their own relationship with the works rather than just sitting in a chair and watching. Audience members at Punchdrunk events are required to wear masks which helps to separate audience from performers, but also creates a wonderful sense of alienation. Instead of creating a single thread of narrative that unfolds on the stage in front of you, there are little nuggets of story happening all over the venue and your participation in this requires you to find and unravel what’s going on. To add complexity, Punchdrunk events are generally quite dimly lit and involve a lot of subtle set dressing that just adds to your confusion, joy and discomfort – to varying levels. And now onto last night’s performance, in which spoilers may be revealed…

I have to confess that my attendance last night was purely due to the enjoyment of Punchdrunk’s Tunnel 228 show last year in conjunction with the Old Vic last year. The thought of seeing an opera is not one that often comes into my head, even with the illustrious ENO a short bus ride from our home. Combined with the subject matter, an obscure play from the 1600s involving lycanthropy, incest and murder, then you don’t have the makings of our usual night out.

Sounds positively enthralling doesn’t it? Going to an obscure opera when you don’t like opera is one thing, but an opera where the already confusing plot will be obfuscated almost completely? Well, sign me up! The complete lack of information prior to the event adds to the vague sense of unease. Reading a few spoiler reviews confirmed the obligatory Punchdrunk masks for the audience, and suggested following the conductor as a way to grasp the fractured narrative threads. Other suggestions were to follow a key character, such as the Duchess herself. None of this really made any sense until after we went, at which point it makes a lot of sense indeed.

The venue was just outside of Gallions Reach, slightly east of City Airport and a long, slow DLR trip away. Walking up to the grey, faceless and slightly run-down building you could be approaching an illegal rave and not the latest masterwork from the partnership of an established British institution and an up and coming theatrical agency. On arrival we were given an innoculation card, which entitled us to a free drink at the bar while we waited. So far so good – get drunk on punch, how ironic. Hanging around outside the building offered no clears and our slightly nervous smiles masked joyful anticipation at what was to come.

Eventually our turn came to go in, at our allotted 7pm slot. We lined up patiently and received our white half-face masks. Dawn, like many others, had trouble getting her glasses under the mask and ended up with her mask off her face most of the time – something that Punchdrunk really ought to have figured out by now, people wear glasses don’t you know. Then we were through, into some small rooms set up as if in a modern hospital with papers strewn about discussing lycanthropy, werewolves.

Then on, through a dark tunnel into the main building, dark and gloomy.. Immediately we went away from the main crowd, up to the top floor. Here we found a deserted forest made up of electrical wires wrapped around each other, a small shrine made out of desks leaning against each other and a bar – selling drinks that you couldn’t take out with you – no time for that then. Past a glass wall showing a drop down to the ground floor with nothing going on. Everywhere there were empty seats ready for the orchestra.

Then down to the second floor where we finally found some characters, cavorting amongst cupboards placed centrally in the room. Then we noticed the orchestra ready to play next to a four poster bed through some soundproof glass – and let me tell you, that soundproof glass works really well, you can have an orchestra next to you and almost not notice it. On the bed the Duchess started to sing, with full orchestra opposite her and us in-between. Her brother, getting frisky with the crowd, joins her with his falsetto/mid-range singing and the play is on. Electrifying.

The scene finished. We rushed to follow the conductor successfully, to where he sets up as the Cardinal presides over a marriage seen – touching our masked faces as he passed. Then onto another scene, along a long partially lit sliding floor, a mix of dance and opera with bodies everywhere. This visceral, sensuous show combined with the richness of voice and music is quite overwhelming in close proximity – everyone standing still, you look around and see white masks watching. An amazing experience. Then we lose the conductor into a staff only door and find ourselves adrift. Up some stairs we find some toilets, then a pair of dancers cavort round us – we have no idea who they are and what their characters mean, but the act is hypnotic. I briefly become part of the show as one dancer drapes herself over me, then she is away to her next act.

We re-find the main act happening two floors below us as we watch down into the main courtyard from the third floor. This distance, similar to a usual theatre but vertically down, is disorientating but a glad respite from the intimacy of other scenes. Then the act comes to join us on this floor, dancing amidst the wire trees. We also find one of the actresses in her bedroom, possibly the Cardinal’s mistress, with orchestra scattered around her on all sides as we squeeze in to watch. Later, in that same room, Richard & Dawn are locked in alone with her as she injects poison into grapes and we wait outside unseeing.

At this point we realise that certain narrative threads are repeating, as we see the Duchess and her brother re-commence the bed scene. This double loop was the only indication that not everything happens once, so arguably you could follow two characters to see the whole play. We wander elsewhere, see a woman attack a man, follow him to a shrine where he tells us to go away but then prostrates himself at Dawn’s feet as if she was the statue he previously wept at. Then he’s off away again. We find the main cast, surrounding the lycanthrope brother crawling throw the wire woods to distant band. Then, naked, the brother walks through and away as we watch a woman writing on chalk walls. Opposite we find a nurse, tending a patient and then tenderly trying to kill her in a stunning dance act across three beds until she finds her own death. Sitting on the beds can be a dangerous choice for the spectators by the way!

Suddenly we are, for the first time, being directed. The black masked attendants, indicative of staff, prevent us going one way then another, till finally we are all herded back out the tunnel we entered into a large hanger with a catwalk in the middle. Faceless marchers with crosses corale us around, as the brother arrives then the Duchess, carried on shoulders and placed on the catwalk. Encroaching madness is represented by red draped dancers, and an incense burner is swung dramatically along the length as the cardinal and servant try to convince the Duchess to change her ways – she resists and is finally killed. The brother walks to his sister, dragging the large red curtains behind him as a cape and revealing a wider scene before the play finishes, our masks are collected and we stand stunned and smiling. It’s now three hours later, but it feels like no time has passed and we still want more. What a night.

What would I do differently next time? Well, I’d certainly read up on the subject matter – assuming there was a narrative I had to try and follow. I wouldn’t bring my bag and would likely wear darker clothes to better blend into the background and increase the effect for everyone else. Possibly I’d bring antiseptic wipes to use on the mask, as I’m not sure they clean them between performances. Hmm.. I would also, no offence to my wonderful co-attendees, go off on my own to experience it more fully. We were, I’m sad to say, one of those small groups of people who tried to stay together and occasionally talked with each other. Apologies to everyone we offended, you sometimes forget that this is an ‘opera’ and not a quest you undertake as a team, but each to their own. I would also try and follow one of the main characters rather than the conductor, although it was wonderful seeing the full orchestra, the frustration when he disappeared through a staff-only door was huge – the characters don’t do this.

Finally, I would try and book for more than one night, as one night of any Punchdrunk event is never enough – but I’ll tell you more about the second night experience next week. Thanks eBay!

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