Review – The Duchess of Malfi, Punchdrunk/ENO

Friday 23 July 2010

“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.

God knows, the plot of John Webster‘s The Duchess of Malfi is complicated enough as it is and as told by Punchdrunk there is no chance of getting to grips with what’s supposed to be going on.

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.

Two out of Five: slightly corked or vinegary


26 Responses to “Review – The Duchess of Malfi, Punchdrunk/ENO”

  1. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    A little charitable. I left after little more than half an hour of actual playing/wandering/groping (I should be so lucky) time. And I’d paid, too.

  2. Boz Says:

    The werewolf thing lost me. I think the venue size was probably a bit ambitious.

    I probably will buy Courvoisier at some point int he future though, so all’s not entirely lost from someone’s point of view.

  3. RAL Says:

    Yes! Exactly how I felt about it all. PLUS – this audience is very different to Punchdrunk audiences of the past. Found myself shoved aside and stomped on by various braying couples during the evening. I can understand their desire to SEE soemthing of course, but I still have a stiletto-heel mark on the back of my right hand!

  4. webcowgirl Says:

    What a night of tosh it all was, eh? Kept comparing it to Paradise Found and realizing it wasn’t hitting the car crash level of fail, it was just boring with bad music, a very “is that all there is to a Punchdrunk performance?” Kind of evening. Sorry you missed the 1 to 1 Festival @BAC as I feel like it had ALL the theatrical magic for this summer.

  5. madamejones Says:

    My first experience of Punchdrunk was Faust in 2006 and I was blown away. That performance has stayed with me and it was a masterpiece in my book, Masque of the Red Death, again, a really good production.

    Unfortuantely I have to agree with much of what the Whingers have expressed about Duchess. However, I thought the finale was amazing. Its just a pity the rest of the piece felt so hollow and devoid of action. Perhaps if they had choosen a smaller space and added more scenes, then the £35 ticket price may have been justified.

    They are without doubt an amazing talented company but I feel they just didn’t deliver on this occasion. The word ‘arrogance’ springs to mind.

  6. Paul Says:

    What you are seeing now with some of these reviews and the type of audience turning up is two things – people who have only been only there to see the ‘next big thing’ who now want to be off to the ‘next next big thing’ and those who, in their wish to express criticism in general, miss valid criticisms in favour of an expression of their own personal bias.

    Good riddance to the former (the ‘next big thing’ers), regarding the latter, people like Coveney, Billington and so on showed their true jaundiced colours in their reviews; there are criticisms to be had but they brushed past those to engage in their own personal prejudices. Some of the reviewers actually engaged with criticisms of the piece itself, what the ones above wrote was worthless.

    I never believe what the WEW whingers write is truly felt (sorry, but the facetious style makes me see you as placing entertainment above true criticism), but one thing – I managed to see about seven of the ten or so scenes, anyone who manages to see ‘one piece of singing’ really isn’t trying!

    As for what any problems with the piece are (and much of it works very well) they come down to the mismatch between opera and the rest of the performance. Following just the opera parts proved fulfilling and, for the second time through, following dancers. The two together are very different however and seeing elements of both is jarring as they are communicating on very different ways.

    The other problem is that the idea of a main story (made concrete by the presence of six or so singers) renders the piece unbalanced. There is always a sense of not being where the ‘main’ action is if not with the singers and that the dance is secondary (as their characters are).

    The space wasn’t a problem but the making of this one strand more important made much of it emptier unless you were with the strands of the singing.

    Having said that the Duchess and Ferdinand were phenomenal singers and performers and the staging was wonderfully done if you were following it.

    Read Coveney and Billington and see how little they were able to articulate any sort of critical response, it’s pitiful, and they are getting paid and getting free tickets…..

    As regards ‘arrogance’ it is a reflection of the audience (maybe the sort as mentioned above) who don’t seem to get the idea that one set of rules in a traditional theatre has to be replaced by another. You get these idiots in a traditional theatre talking, phoning and so on, so no difference here, in fact I’d be happier if all theatres were tougher on audiences who are happy to spoil the concentration and enjoyment of others.

    • Ian Shuttleworth Says:

      The core point, I think, is your observation that “one set of rules in a traditional theatre has to be replaced by another.” What Punchdrunk – and, conceivably, you – don’t seem to get is that that new set of rules has to be renegotiated, not simply imposed top-down. In this case it’s not renegotiated: a particular set of responses is expected of us, but without either a case being made for that expectation or allowance for the possibility that various members might not conform to it. That doesn’t necessarily excuse various of the Malfi audience being inconsiderate oafs, but it does explain it. And that, it seems to me, is precisely what Michael Billington addresses in his review (I haven’t seen Coveney’s).

      • Paul Says:

        I disagree, an audience is not in charge, you play by the rules of whatever company you see. As an example. I’m ‘seeing’ Susurrus and Dominie Public later today; there are different rules and I expect the rest of the audience to play by them as much as I have to.

        That a critic doesn’t seem to ‘get this’ and, in fact, puts the blame in totally the opposite direction is worrying.

        Also, given that you were criticising the show on the Guardian blog when you now admit you barely saw half an hour of it is an unconscionable position for you to take.

    • Michael Says:

      I’m with Paul. I had a fine evening. Hopeless to go in a jokey group. Webster mayhem in decay with some thoroughly lovely performances. To explore Webster mind in time and space : a very fine night out. Being in a small group or in one point solo physically involved in words action music setting. My own story told told tolled. Once you work out that the spectacle chasing throng and the explorers are all catered for it frees you to make something individual of all their hard work. I saw the black masked attendants as a handy adjunct. I bumped into a furious musician, I do think musicians are the cyclists of the theatrical world. I enjoyed leaving still having work to do. Somehow I seemed to have caught quite a lot of the music. If that was inaccessible then I’d suggest an alternative would be slippers n buble. There was one design intent I would like to have seen realised but I wasn’t there in the right time. If there were more time I’d fork out for another journey.

    • pb Says:

      It’s amazing the debate that reviews of this have stirred up… I’m not that disappointed now that I didn’t manage to get a ticket. I may well have been one of the ‘next big thing-ers’ as I haven’t seen a Punchdrunk show… but as someone who enjoys plays, I kinda want to see one by them, as they generate a massive amount of (mostly very positive) comment.
      However, I do think the attacks on Billington et al are unfair. Clearly the fact that I haven’t seen a show may invalidate my comments, but there do seem to be a lot of entrenched views in the area. There does seem, in my opinion, to be an implication in the responses to people who haven’t enjoyed this (and other similar shows) that the reviewer has some kind of vendetta against the type of show. I simply don’t believe this. If a reviewer didn’t enjoy the show, I expect them to tell me as much. As a reader, you have to assess which critics your tastes are aligned to.
      On the point of WEW being entertainment rather than criticism, I partially accept that- their reviews are clearly written to entertain as much as inform. And they generally succeed for me. But they do also inform- I know that either myself or my mum will like shows if they do. And me and my mum tend to like very different shows.
      Apologies for trying to be serious- clearly this link is where to be doing that:

      • Paul Says:

        If Billington had actually reviewed the show rather than fight from his trench then he would have been worth reading, he chose not to do that so that’s why he has been dismissed.

        There have been much better critiques from those approaching this from the opera angle; they have a language with which to discuss it, telling the reader about the production itself not their personal bias.

  7. David Says:

    Presumably given the state of Phil’s head we can expect a review from the Leicester Square Theatre in August:

  8. Shocked beyond belief at the ignorance and inaccuracy:

    It’s ‘Mainwaring’.

  9. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Paul: I said nothing of the kind that the audience is in charge. But neither is the company. It’s a transaction, not an imposition, especially when the arrangement is unconventional.

    To take an example of the headphone show format you cite, I recall a previous David Leddy headphone show which assumed an impractical walking pace around a route (too slow or too fast, I can’t remember), and another set in a supermarket which assumed spatial and pace relationships simply not possible in the environment (besides which, it said not to finish and buy anything, and it was the only chance I had all that day to actually do some shopping).

    Formats are not orders to be obeyed; conventions are conventions only by consensus, and when an arrangement steps outside that consensus, particularly by positing an individual relationship above the collective, then a new compact is put in place.

    The core power of theatre is the significant shared live presence of performer(s) and audience. That is, in phenomenological though obviously not creative terms, an equality of status. (It’s also an equality not present in headphone pieces, but that’s another matter.) We’re in the experience together. That feeds through to modes of response.

    And I’m criticising aspects of this show that I did experience, and from this basis, and moreover doing so as an individual rather than in a professional capacity, so my conscience is clear.

    I’m not denying anyone any status: not the audience to respond as they will, not myself to comment as I do. You would seem to decry both, as well as that of Michael Billington by dint of his age and what you assert to be his prejudices in the matter. Where’s the intolerance?

    • Paul Says:

      I disagree; the company is in charge, they have to be. Those who don’t want to obey the format are spoiling the enjoyment of others and that isn’t on; at least you left in this case, however, and didn’t impose your will on those who were doing what you didn’t want to do.

      Of course if these people aren’t a then a company should question whether it needs to change but because there are a few who talk, refuse to follow the rules and so on, it doesn’t mean that the rules are suddenly to be dropped. That’s democracy.

      As for Billington’s age, who cares? I mentioned nothing about it but it seems to be on your mind. I’m not quite at his age but I believe I’m older than you and probably many here. Age is not an issue. His review was a poorly considered one and, given that he’s getting paid it needs to be pointed out. Maybe they should have had an opera critic there, someone who could critique the music and performance.

      Regarding Domini Public it actually illuminated certain matters surrounding this, the complicity of the audience, the rules that we follow, the way that a disembodied ‘other’ moulds a group into their will.

      • TheTTCritic Says:

        Rupert Christiansen, the Telegraph Opera Critic and a man not known for pulling his punches, did review it

        Interesting reading but not out of line with most of the theatre critics. Let’s be honest, as pure opera none of the performers had a chance (variable and mostly dodgy acoustics throughout) so Opera/Theatre critic becomes a bit of a wash anyway.

        In regards to Billington’s review, it must be said that if you ditch the last line of the first paragraph (which I would agree is a stupid and jaded statement), he actually makes some very valid points and his overall review is entirely cogent and considered. I’d argue his third paragraph is pretty much bang on in fact. His follow-up comments down the page similarly intelligent and well put. I’m all for non-linear story telling but for me they got it badly wrong in this piece. You can read my full review on my blog.

        All this talk of different sorts of audience member seems to me pure snobbery. We all go to the theatre for different reasons and if you go simply to be seen, hopefully great art will still smack you in the face and make you think again.


  10. Tim Says:

    I did’nt see the show. So my comments are to do with arrogance. Theatre relys on ‘the next big thingers’ like it or not. Theatres are always on the look out for new audiences. Perhaps letting the proles in is a bad idea? Shakespeare never thought so, but restricting theatre to those who ‘truly get it’ is the kind of elitism that keeps people away from the theatre. People new to the theatrical experience tend to be reasonably respectful of the compact between audience and company, and often follow the ‘rules’ like well trained sheep. This is because rules have been established over time and neophyte theatregoers are aware that they are such. And for the most part try not to step on the not so well manicured feet of the theatrical elite. No one wants to look like a trog and face the wrath of a seasoned theatregoer. In this there is respect for tradition and a dose of fear of being ridiculed for not following the lead of others. I agree wholeheartedly that texting, eating crisps and giggling at nude scenes has become more prevelant, but I’ve not seen a great deal of that and it is usually followed quite quickly by glares and finger to lips admonishment which for the most part works. Companies like Punchdrunk bend and break the rules, not a bad thing, allowing theatre to stagnate would be worse, but the audience deserve to know the companies expectations of them, so they can either follow them or get the first bus home. Whether companies hav e the right to have expectations of a paying audience is another matter. Should restaraunts make you wear a tie? So for ‘TNBT’rs’ some of whom may actually sneak off from their mates and watch another show in the future and for seasoned ‘traditional’ theatregoers who don’t like Paul understand what is required of them perhaps a little a guidance would go a long way.

    • Paul Says:

      Agree pretty much with that, although I think my characterisation of ‘next big thingers’ is misinterpreted. I refer to those who are only there because it’s the place to be, who have no interest in what it is they are seeing. These are the people that companies can easily do without.

  11. Paul Says:

    TC – this has split people down the middle. I was talking to one of the orchestra who had been talking to audience members throughout on the DLR on the way back and they also reported this complete divide, more positive than negative but still with a very vocal negative group.

    I always check up on reviews throughout the web of things I see and there have been many excellent ones for this (I just caught the head of Chicago Opera enthusing about it, for example), alongside those of the other type that have been mentioned and repeatedly talked about (and I have myself partly to blame for referring to them alone).

    Billington’s review repeats one point again and again – put it in the right order. I’m sorry but that’s not good enough and his inability to get past that point sinks the review.

    In the end it’s the problem with all criticism, it’s an attempt to justify a gut feeling and having the words to do that. Your review actually (and I’m not saying this to curry favour) does this much better than the ones I mentioned and the Telegraph review you refer to also. Now why do they get paid and we don’t?…….

  12. Paul Says:

    TC – Also meant to mention a little titbit I picked up. There should have been two loops of the story but at the dress they had to cut this down because there was just too much. As it was the first loop started at scene four then only the second time did the complete loop get performed.

    It’s why people will have got less of the story (allied with your and my point about secondary characters being not very important). It also explains some of why people got less of a sense of putting the pieces together, there weren’t as many of them there.

  13. TheTTCritic Says:

    All good points and I’m pleased this has generated such debate. I’ve nothing but praise for the ENO for trying, regardless of the result (pity the youth market hardly got a look in however).

    Interesting about the two loops being cut. As an audience member though I only really ultimately care about the end result. They can only blame themselves if necessary cutting led to an arguably weaker piece.


  14. Paul Says:

    TTC – I think they’ll have found themselves compromised by the needs of collaboration. It’s difficult at the best of times but when you have to cut your work so late then someone needs to question why it wasn’t picked up earlier.

    Having said that, this was much better than anything that, for example, Shunt have managed to put together – a group that I wish would do more than show promise, ever since Dance Bear Dance. I saw dreamthinkspeak’s ‘Before I Sleep’ at Brighton also, maybe the closest in terms of companies to Punchdrunk. It was fine but slight and had the same audience and space problems, reviews of that, in comparison (as with Money), tended to be too kind in my opinion. Maybe different reviewers reviewing but definitely different standards being set.

    Anyway, this is supposed to be a witty, joshing blog isn’t it? Far too serious a conversation for that!

  15. TheTTCritic Says:

    I was just thinking the same. I’ll be losing party invitations if I carry on being so serious…

  16. Barnaby Page Says:

    On balance I thought it was an interesting experience (and I use “experience” deliberately) in spite of itself. The setting and production design were marvellously spooky and I liked the way some of the rooms seemed to change in the course of the production (even if one of the gimmicks was a straight rip-off from The Shining!). Stumbling across the room packed with chairs, alone, was genuinely disquieting.

    But. While the score often worked as background, the vocal arrangements didn’t. You could barely make out a word, and in any case the inherent unrealism of opera (that is, people singing instead of talking), plus the visibility of the musicians, detracted from the immersive effect that was achieved elsewhere. I’d actually go so far as to say that the atmosphere, the sense of tension, drained away every time one encountered a main scene.

    It might have worked better as ballet, or even as an installation without performers.

    A few other observations:

    Somebody suggested that a well-known story (Bluebeard, Dracula, Macbeth) would fit this approach better – familiarity would tell you where you were in the narrative. Absolutely.

    I realise Punchdrunk have to fund the production somehow and that audience numbers were kept low, but the Courvoisier presence irritated me. They could at least have offered water as well as punch in the bar – not everybody wants to (or for that matter legally can) – drink alcohol during the show. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who mistook another experiential marketing opportunity for the exit at the end, when all I wanted to do was get outside.

    The much-vaunted “spectacular” finale fell a bit flat, I think: you could see the “surprise” a mile off. Hmmm, this room is lined with big red curtains, I wonder if they might by any chance open them…?

    On the subject of the masks: I see their point. They stop the audience looking at one another, largely inhibit conversation, and cut out peripheral and upward/downward vision, adding to the sense of disorientation. Unfortunately they are effectively impossible to wear with glasses, a pretty big design flaw. (I lasted an hour, then alternated between mask and no glasses/glasses and no mask.)

  17. Baldassaro Says:

    I had the glasses/mask problem at Faust, and resorted to the same solution. I enjoyed Faust, but not enough to get into a bare knuckle fight for one of their subsequent shows. In this case, it seems I was probably wise…

  18. […] there’s the fact that SNMNYC is spread out over seven large floors. Some reviews suggested that Punchdrunk had spread themselves too thin with Malfi over three floors of the production. Not […]

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