The Masque of the Red Death, Battersea Arts Centre, London

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After being praised to the rafters for their Faust in a disused East End archive building last year, the Punchdrunk company was given the brief of creating another site-responsive production to use every available space in BAC. Since this consists of the former Battersea Town Hall, now converted into an arts centre with three regular venues and at least one sizeable hall to spare, that’s quite a set of premises to play with.

Punchdrunk succeed in immersing the entire building in such an unwonted atmosphere that even I, who have known the place for nearly 20 years, found myself wandering around like an innocent. For that is the structure of this presentation, which is an impressionistic collage of several of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories rather than anything resembling a linear drama. We are kitted out in carnival masks (many of us also adopt capes) and instructed not to speak during the evening, then left to our own devices to discover what we will.

What I discovered were a series of chambers dressed in phenomenal detail, whether as bedrooms (any of several women seen at various points may have been intended to be the cataleptic Madeline Usher, or Berenice, or Ligeia – Poe’s women are largely interchangeable in any case), studies, a crumbling garret or a morgue that converted into a banqueting hall. Performers, usually singly or in pairs, engage in brief scenes too unspecific for me to identify with confidence with particular tales, but all contributing to the Poe-esque atmosphere of wrongness of mind and body.

A bar area is provided for refuge, disguised as a palace of varieties in which nudge-nudge musical numbers alternate with an impressive and disturbing mind-reading act. Among the features I missed (so I gather) were a ravishing perfumery, a real live black cat and a sensuous blindfolded one-on-one encounter. It must be said that, after all this, the finale of Prince Prospero’s ball and the arrival of the Red Death felt rather anti-climactic; apart from an admirable final illusion, the company’s fevered danse macabre seemed contrived and unsurprising. But the air of communal celebration on our unmasking was genuine. Too often the phrase “journey of discovery” is hollow and meaningless when applied to art; here, it is accurate in every sense.

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