Review – Duchess of Malfi, Punchdrunk

I was a bit lost and a bit bored. I was in a forest made of electrical wires and glass. Frankly I was wondering whether this wouldn’t all be a lot easier if I stayed still and the actors came to me rather than us both just wandering around hoping to bump into each other.

But before long I stumbled across some people in gothic outfits and stood and watched them for a while. Nothing happened for a bit, and I was about to give up when they began some strange sort of communion/wedding/orgy picnic, the relevance of which I must confess was lost on me. At the end, the bride wandered off but one of the other girls locked eyes, walked up to me, took my hand and gave me a peach filled with symbolic meaning, probably.

This made me feel rather special. Nobody else was carrying fruit. Although it did make things slightly awkward every time I bumped into her again as she clearly though I was stalking her like a lost animal hoping for more food.

Then I saw a dance.

Then I wandered around for a bit and got a bit lost. I did consider taking my mask off, throwing my peach at an unsuspecting audience member and shouting “Ah ha, Confabulus, shall you seek wisdom but limit not your wise pharmacy!” in true Punchdrunk style, but reasoned that my Ralph Lauren polo shirt might limit my ability to pose as a member of the cast, even if I did have the patois and props sorted.

Then I saw a dance.

Then I saw a girl with a ginger bob get raped by a nun. After that she prayed a bit, rolled on the floor, prayed more, went into a room and washed some guy’s hands very slowly, washed some other guy’s hands very slowly and then moved on moments before a fat, naked, blood-soaked alto – pursued by a hundred white masks – needed to use the sink.

Then I saw a dance.

Then I was taken into a pitch dark room alone with one character who told me to be good in my mind, lips and heart before giving me a communion wafer. I gave him a peach, which I must admit threw him off his stride somewhat.

Then I saw a girl with a ginger bob get raped by a nun. After that she prayed a bit, rolled on the floor, prayed more, went into a room and washed some guy’s hands very slowly, took all her clothes off and changed into a scarlet Klansman outfit.

Then it was definitely time for a drink.

Can there be a theatre outfit that takes itself more seriously than Punchdrunk? Whether they’re fighting each other for no appreciable reason or writhing on the floor as part of some deliberately incomprehensible subplot or covering themselves in blood and cobwebs as part of some gothic fetish to which we are all uncomprehending facilitators, they all have that Punchdrunk look about them: far away, knowing, aloof, loaded with hints at absent meaning and above all: serious. Serious in all things. What do you think this is? Funny?

Which is a shame, because much of what Punchdrunk do is really quite funny when you think about it. As you wander around an east London office building alone wondering if something is going to happen soon, or observe a stampede of masked theatregoers scurrying after a cast member in the vain hope of actually witnessing some sliver of drama, you could be forgiven for chuckling to yourself and wondering if they don’t have a sense of humour after all.

This show is textbook Punchdrunk. Masks for the audience, freedom to roam, slices of weird behaviour, no real plot and a coup de theatre to finish. But there’s nothing new, and that which is old is diminished from their last London outing, Masque of the Red Death, which may prove to be the platonic form of Punchdrunk shows. BAC felt like it was brimming with richness, with every inch designed and agonised over; there’s a lot of nice touches in the Malfi design but it feels less loved, less full, less real, less exciting. There was no plot in Red Death, but the theme felt consistent and the series of vignettes meant you didn’t feel you were missing much; there was, according to the programme, a plot for Malfi but I can’t believe anyone picked it up from what was on show. The final flourish in Red Death was a masterpiece which remains incomprehensible to me even today; the final flourish in Malfi was quite clever. The theatre of Red Death allowed interaction outside the set pieces; the opera conventions of Malfi closed this off with the opera parts themselves lacklustre.

If you love Punchdrunk, you’ll find this all just a bit… boring.

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