“It’s just more of the same, really,” lamented Andrew, finally able to relax a bit and gather his thoughts now that the Whingers and party had located the hidden bar.
“It’s less of the same,” retorted Kat, pithily, which is exactly what the Whingers would have said had they thought of it.
Indeed. The Duchess of Malfi feels like Punchdrunk spread somewhat thin, despite the addition of an orchestra. The venue feels larger (three stories of an unoccupied office in Gallions Reach, Beckton) but there seem to be fewer actors and less going on.
Mind you, this time they’ve really upped their game when it comes to the futility involved in being an audience member.
This was the Whingers’ third Punchdrunk experience and it’s surprising quite how much the law of diminishing returns asserts itself.
Nothing surprised or delighted us. And that makes for a terrible feeling. Whatever you might believe, the Whingers are not tired old cynics with a permanent air of “seen that”. Andrew actually has the memory of a goldfish meaning that practically everything is new and exciting.
But yes, the world goes round and round and round and round and round. Phil found himself humming Sondheim’s “I Never Do Anything Twice”. Except he had done something twice. In fact, this was the thrice. And before you say it, yes, we probably shan’t go again because there are plenty of people who can’t get enough Punchdrunk and plenty of people who would like to give it a whirl but haven’t had the opportunity (these 13 performances reportedly sold out within six hours and brought the ENO website to its knees). So let them have a turn.
The reason for going thrice was the ENO dimension. Not that the Whingers really do opera, but the idea of adding an orchestra and opera singers to the mix really did sound quite appealing.
As it was, we only caught one bit of singing (the chances are slim that you will catch anything very much – apart from tetanus as a result of tripping over artfully discarded office detritus). On the other hand, there is an awful lot of walking to be done.
The bar only serves Courvoisier punch, albeit in china cups and saucers which would be a fantastic idea if The Duchess of Malfi was set in prohibition America, but this version didn’t seem to be. You can also buy a teapot of punch to share but it seemed that three cups gave you more and cost you less. It’s not very alcoholic either. The Whingers had three cups and didn’t get any-kind-of-drunk. Certainly not drunk enough to say they loved it.
After wandering aimlessly a bit more we were ushered, rather unceremoniously, into a large hangar for the “grand” finale. Penitents wafted around in Santa Semana robes carrying wooden crosses. A woman (The Duchess?) was carried aloft on a throne and placed at the end of a long, raised traverse stage. A thurible swang dangerously overhead. Dancers in underpants with slashed-to-the-armpit red robes fannied around on a catwalk waving their bottoms about and thrusting their groins into each other. DV8 have an awful lot to answer for.
Another tune entered Phil’s head, and goodness knows it was catchier than anything going on here.
“And I do my little turn on the catwalk
Yeah on the catwalk yea on the catwalk, yeah
I shake my little tush on the catwalk”
It was so incredibly dull that the Whingers cut their losses and fled to avoid the queue for the coat check (“£1 per bag. No coats”). A little of Torsten Rasch’s rather modern (in the sense of atonal, not in the sense of The Beatles) music went a very long way indeed and at times the whole thing (male alto singer with white face, modern dance in cheap robes) seemed more like a parody of modern performance art than the real thing. Or perhaps they are the same. What do we know?
But if the power of Punchdrunk lessens each time, there is one aspect that seems to get more intense – the arrogance. Time was (when going to Faust say) that you felt invited to put on a mask and try out the experience. Now the invitation has become a command. “Wear your mask at all times. Do not touch the musicians’ music. The people in the black masks are NOT their to guide you,” barked the woman handing out the masks. “And enjoy yourself,” Andrew added on her behalf as the Whingers’ party headed off.
It’s not often that the Whingers – or anyone else these days for that matter – agree with Michael Coveney but we know what he means when he says that what he dislikes about Punchdrunk is ”the fascistic sense of coercion, the bullying, the refusal to ask “off-piste” questions, say about health or safety, the thin dramaturgy, the bad acting.”
The unspoken contract between performer and audience member in the legitimate theatre is a long established (well, perhaps a century or so) treaty in which – inter alia – it is understood by both parties who gets to speak and who remains silent. Punchdrunk is happy to tear up this agreement. By turning up the audience consents to some kind of review of the status quo. But the problem is that all down the line it’s Punchdrunk that dictates the new contract. Of course, you don’t have to agree to the letter of the contract but as a great man once said, “They don’t like it up ‘em Mr Mannering” and actually much fun can be derived from the evening by challenging the authority figures (when not at the expense of the “enjoyment” of other audience members, obviously).
Indeed, the Whingers’ happiest moments in asking the guides questions and forcing them to speak. And when someone tried to guide the Whingers physically, it was rather cathartic to be able to bark “Don’t touch me!”
So, our advice is to take resposibility for your evening; if you want to go outside and get some air, insist on it. If you’re sick of wandering round missing all the action, just explain to someone that you are bored and that as a customer you would like some assistance in getting £35 worth of something out of the evening. In retrospect, perhaps we should have asked someone to explain what was going on to us.
If you need any inspiration, just take a look at the musicians. They’re brilliant. It’s well known that musicians are the least engaged members of any theatrical endeavour – and here they get a chance to shine: just watch their grumpy gaits as they make their way to their seats with their masks reluctantly placed atop their heads and their mouths scowling at the indignity of it all. Marvellous stuff.
You too can make up your own narrative. In fact you will have to if you want anything other than a night of incoherence.
As the Whingers emerged gratefully into the refreshing night air, Phil found himself humming something else: “What’s it all about, Malfi?”
An extra * for effort.