Review: The Duchess of Malfi

As a piece of immersive theatre, the Punchdrunk production company once again deserves full points for scale and spectacle. Their latest is an interpretation of bloody Renaissance drama The Duchess of Malfi, in partnership with the ENO, which unfolds over three floors of deserted office building somewhere a bit derelict under the London City Airport flight path.

So what, the uninitiated might ask, is ‘immersive theatre’? Anything involving actors and spectators that diverges from the traditional format of players on a stage performing to a passive (probably seated) audience. Both parties inhabit the same space, with varying degrees of interaction between the two. In Punchdrunk’s case, their preferred method seems to be to thematically deck out an entire building, send the audience in (masked), and, after a while of acclimatising, release a fleet of actors to fill the myriad spaces with action.

Whether or not, as a member of the audience, you are present in the right place at the right time for critical parts of the plot, is totally up to luck and intuition. Which means that the effect is an impression of a play, of certain themes, rather than a coherent whole, or a followable story. The genius in past productions has been to use this aspect to entice the audience, like a detective in a small town of tight-lipped locals, to try and figure out what the hell is going on, picking up clues from props, pursuing particular characters on their way.

Unusually for this innovative theatre group, whose reputation for immersive experiences is growing, the critical reviews haven’t been great. There was one particularly dismissive reviewer in the Metro. Although I doubt Punchdrunk’s enthusiastic following will be much damaged, I did indeed leave feeling, although overwhelmed by the whole, ultimately slightly short-changed.

The problem is that the Duchess of Malfi is a fabulously complex story. Even if you did know it back-to-front, it would be an extreme mental exercise to piece together the disparate fragments in any meaningful way. There is a fine line between alluringly mysterious and frustratingly obscure. Unfortunately I think this production tipped over into self-indulgently obtuse. However it’s easy to see how it happens. With a loyal and knowing audience, the makers presumably want to challenge them further, go one better than last time, push the boundaries again. But they are moving in too many conflicting directions at once, trying to keep what worked last time but do more.

The tenuous links to medical testing are a case in point. The insinuation that you are walking into a quarantined zone certainly heightens the haunted house effect, as was the case with the mystery killer sickness in ‘Masque of the Red Death’. But this time the link to the story is the Duchess’ twin brother’s affliction with Lycanthropy (also known as ‘thinking you’re a werewolf’). The leap from 20th century underground laboratory to Renaissance court drama just didn’t work. The entrance was a red herring in relation to the rest of the experience.

Again, with the attempt to marry their previous tricks with opera, if they were going to complicate the experience in this way perhaps they should have simplified it in others. The score, of the type written more to demonstrate the prowess of the vocalists in being able to jump three octaves and back again in the space of a single word, is difficult to appreciate in this fragmented way. It’s also almost impossible to understand what the characters are saying. Given that there is no other spoken word, if you can’t interpret the arias, you’re lost.

And once again the set relied heavily on lots of velvet and low-level lighting: overall it felt too much like a slightly confused rehashing of the macabre funhouse that worked so well in Masque of the Red Death. And like all sequels – it just wasn’t quite as good.

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