My third trip to the Masque of the Red Death, and by a long long way the most extraordinary; the first which gave me that extraordinary feeling of crossing the threshold into another reality, the first to burn out some of the few remaining wires in my head keeping me grounded in what some people call “reality”.
Even before I got there it was turning into an odd evening. Standing at the bus stop, a car pulled up and a youngish bloke got out talking very loudly into his cellphone in that annoying and self important way. He comes up to me and says he’s on the radio and its ‘world hello day’ and would I mind speaking to the presenters? He presses the phone against my ear but I have two layers of woolly cap over my ears so the conversation is a bit disjointed. Did I know it was world hello day? No I didn’t, I thought it was world no music day. Yes it was world no music day. What radio station are they? Sorry say again. Still couldn’t hear. You say hello, I say goodbye.
Even before then, appropriate for a Punchdrunk day, I spent the day trying to clean traces of infection off the computer and defragmenting the hard drive. Norton Ghost is playing up.
At Battersea on a wet windy night, I head straight for the actual entrance. There must have been a problem with communication at the front of the building (where most people go first before being sent round to the side) because I am on my own, and go straight in. It must have been about fifteen minutes into the performance before I saw another member of the audience. This must be every Punchlover’s dream – completely on their own in the building with the actors, but at the same time it is really really freaky, this sense that the whole thing is for you, the awkwardness of the intimacy, Bon Bon insisting that I go down the stairs into the cellar, Roderick Usher ( I think) running down the stairs to whisper something very very fast in my ears and running back up, whilst Madeline Usher drifts by, ghostly faced, staring at me from the other side of the staircase.
The whole experienced seemed to be ramped up from previous visits. I was constantly being brushed, stroked, tickled, by the characters. Veiled weeping women muttered in Latin or Italian as they sought solace in my arms or on my shoulder. In the attic, Madame Salsafette performed an extraordinary dance before scaling ropes up into the rafters. Up there was a hidden backward message - something about Poe and the Red Death - and a mirror which she used to direct blinding light into my face.
Much is made of the famed one on ones and I found myself in two very intense situations. First was the nurse, weeping and clinging to me, stroking my face, and asking if I believed in God, before telling me she could no longer believe in a just God with all the death and destruction in the world ( I felt something very similar in rereading Deuteronomy 28 just the other day).
Even more intense was a scene in the cellar where a spectral lady hanging from the rafters ushered me into a tiny alcove before performing an exquisite dance, using me as support. We sat on a tiny bench whilst she stroked my face before removing my mask and pointing to a mirror; we sat holding hands and staring into each others eyes. She dug a necklace out from a pile of leaves in the corner of the room and wrapped it around our hands, all the time whispering in Italian. She then hung the necklace on the corner of the mirror. At the end of the necklace was a white cross.
I followed her next door into the room where Montresor had been “bricked up”, where she danced across the stonework before taking out the wooden panels and, leaping over into the pit, and digging body parts out of the sand, possibly teeth.
She was definitely not the main Berenice, but maybe she was a ghostly trace, a faint echo, of Berenice – I noticed that the narrative strands seemed to be carried across different members of the cast, regardless of who their designated character was - several members of the casts whispered to me about staring eyes, which comes from The Tell Tale Heart, possibly fused with the Black Cat.
Other great scenes included the Jester’s dance down the stairways, and the marriage scene at the top of the stairways, a fight between Black Cat Husband and another man, culminating in Black Cat Husband (but he will always be Mephistopheles to me) making me crouch down and press my hand against the other man’s forehead, telling me not to let him wake up ( I fail of course!).
Backstage at the Palais Royale I caught the Brothers Barnsby’s crazed sawing dance, whilst in the changing room another character tried awkwardly and failingly to make advances on the equally awkward dresser. Out front I finally caught Roderick Usher’s frankly astonishing mind reading act.
I have been slightly underwhelmed by the guest mini-performances within the show – they have tended to be a bit fey and too jolly - but one of the installations last night was tremendous – two women in full black Victorian widow/mourning wear, in a white room where the walls and floors were smeared in blood. One of the women was painting her legs with theatrical make-up to look like she had been the victim of a most gruesome murder in the Rue Morgue, whilst the other was methodically probing the wall with a metal spatula, pulling away a thin plastic skin-like membrane, then walking over to a metal surgical bowl of “blood” which she sucked into a syringe before injecting the blood into the wound she had made in the wall. All done silently, intensely, slowly and methodically. It was genuinely very sinister!
The grand finale seemed louder and longer than before – maybe my imagination, but added to my sense that the show had been ramped up.
As with Faust, I am finding last night very hard to get out of my head. I am still haunted by the smell of lavender, sweat and blood, and by the spectres swinging from the rafters. Can’t wait for visit no. 4!