There's no denying the effectiveness of Punchdrunk's Duchess of Malfi as theatre or spectacle. It is staged across three floors of a disused (but not derelict) office building in London’s Docklands, around which the audience – wearing Comedia dell'Arte-style masks – are free to roam, touch, prod and investigate. Apart from a corridor of small offices at the start, which became closed off later in the performance, and a plenary concluding scene in a large warehouse space, the remainder of the building was one huge set completely open for exploration.
There were pitch-perfect reconstructions of scientific laboratories: I tried random desk drawers, and the contents of every one remained in character. Two tiny rooms – belonging to the Duchess's illicit children – were tucked away in hidden corners: the floor of the boys' room was covered in the chalk drawings of a frightened child. One floor was filled with a forest of wire trees. Another had huge empty spaces, pitch black apart from a distant light that dared you to cross the void. I followed the Duchess as a bride past a chain of suspended pages of music and a huge marital bed before losing her in the darkness. I finally reached a dead end, alone, in a room papered with hundreds of paper folders, each containing a photograph, a document or a tiny object – an attempted forensic reconstruction from impossibly rich, impossibly mysterious data. In another room I encountered the mad, lycanthropic Ferdinand in a desperate hand-to-hand fight. Shoved into one corner, from which I could not escape, I watched Ferdinand suspend himself, upside down, between two walls before giving his assailant a passionate kiss.
Everything had been conceived to give as complete a sensory experience as possible: even the dark patches on the floor of a cell had an unpleasantly sticky feel under foot. Yet was a long time before I encountered any live music – although I stumbled across plenty of expectant arrays of music stands. However, an electronic soundtrack of menacing drones – effective, if generic – accompanied me throughout.
In fact when I did come across some live music its staginess so disturbed my videogame-like involvement with the theatre piece that I walked away from it almost immediately. Everything I had encountered up to that point had felt darkly serendipitous, an impression of freedom within a world that was irresistibly controlling and moulding me through forces of unseen malevolence. The play was the space, an atmosphere through which things happened, not all of them within your control – being in the audience was rather like being a character in Webster's tragedy. The music worked best when it contributed to that ambience, or on the rare occasions when it was possible to hear two overlapping scenes. But in practice most of the scenes didn't overlap, or weren't simultaneously audible at least. My experience of the piece (which may not have been everyone's) for the second hour was more a series of operatic tableaux staged in different rooms, alternating with a quick surge of audience, actors and musicians from one room to the next.
And this is where I began to have serious reservations about the success of The Duchess of Malfi as an opera. The music worked against the immersive experience: as soon as a group of musicians gathered at one of those collections of music stands, they drew an audience who stopped promenading and exploring, and stood, waiting to listen. Some even found themselves seats – like parkgoers around the bandstand – long before any music had begun.
Was music the problem? Was this an insurmountable obstacle faced by Punchdrunk in crossing the line from theatre to opera?
No, it shouldn't have been. Music as a mobile, temporally unconstrained form has a history at least as noble as that in any other artform. The problem with Torsten Rasch's neo-Romantic score is that it was mono-perspectival: its close tracking of the text, its emotional ebb and flow, its syntactical clarity all mitigated against its success in this context. It would have made a great film score, and probably a good conventional opera. But where Punchdrunk's theatre was mobile, adaptive, unpredictable, Rasch’s music wasn't. It fixed us firmly in one time and one place, breaking the immersive spell. Suddenly I was just ordinary member of an ordinary audience, listening to ordinary music in an ordinary way. Not for the first time I despaired at the fact that promoters, artistic directors and audiences will tolerate radicalism and experimentation in almost any medium except music, which remains unable to shift the dead weight of a conservative, symphonic approach that, frightened by its own dishonest myths of the musical avant garde, prefers inoffensiveness over anything smacking of risk, adventure or experiment. Ultimately, Punchdrunk's production lacked the courage to match their radical theatre with the radical music it deserved. What a missed opportunity.
Photos: Stephen Cummiskey