One trend in the arts in recent years has been a growing audience for one-off projects, people who are not interested in art, theatre or music per se, but in events. Generally, they are young and hungry for new experiences, and institutions have been quick to capitalise. That tickets for The Duchess of Malfi, a new opera installation presented by English National Opera and the experimental theatre group Punchdrunk, sold out in six hours gives some measure of the demand.
This loose production of John Webster’s 1614 play, incorporating a new operatic score by Torsten Rasch, takes place over three floors of a deserted office complex in the urban wilderness of Gallions Reach in East London. Like Punchdrunk’s previous interpretations of Macbeth and Faust, the narrative is non-linear so participants have control over their exposure to the work.
Having donned white carnival masks, the audience is free to explore the darkened building, nosing into dimly lit rooms and riding the lifts. Gradually ambient rumblings give way to theatrical vignettes – a violent pas de deux, a tortured duet – against fragments of Rasch’s spiky, woodwind-heavy orchestration. My encounters with the duchess were fleeting and most of the six or so scenes I stumbled across involved courtiers romping among the gathered spectators, then swiftly exiting, as if evaporating into the ether.
Certainly, director Felix Barrett succeeds in creating a series of potent atmospheres, but the missing links are frustrating. Perhaps a fresh and entirely abstract subject matter might have worked better. At times the experience was deeply unsettling, laying raw instinct and mob mentality bare, but without a sustained sense of drama, or intrinsic meaning, these thrills start to feel like elements in a sophisticated fairground ride.
It is only in the concluding scene that music, drama, and special effects find perfect synthesis. Now congregated in a large warehouse space, thick with church incense and surrounded by long red curtains, the audience play witness to the pleas of Claudia Huckle’s compelling duchess, and her ritualistic murder, before the curtains part for a final, chilling coup de théâtre.
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