Rasch The Duchess of Malfi, English National Opera & Punchdrunk

We journeyed to deepest docklands, a bewildered group of punters and members of the press clutching our precious tickets (all performances sold out in six hours) and a precise set of directions to the mysterious location.

WARG Pharmaceuticals handed us appointment cards for a new vaccination programme (slightly unsettling) and we were herded to the doors of “the venue”. Masks were distributed (warning: a big problem if you happen to wear glasses) as were cursory health and safety announcements. But no further mention of vaccination. “I am not mad”, the Duchess of Malfi had famously insisted. Perhaps we too were there for “the cure”. This was, after all, “immersive” theatre.

Well, a series of deserted rooms connected to some sinister treatment programme did not make for comfortable exploration and as the darkness intensified and the spaces grew bigger the sound of less cautious audience members colliding with obstacles or even crashing to the floor was not the kind of music I had hoped to hear. Indeed, so far no music at all save the “white noise” of a moody underscoring track grimly suggestive of dark and dastardly deeds. All would doubtless be revealed but not in any coherent form of narrative. Punchdrunk shows are all about making choices as to when and where you go – which direction, which corridor, which room. I soon encountered an empty bedchamber, a forest of wire trees (magical), a room in which pages of a musical manuscript seemed to float in mid-air. Perhaps Torsten Rasch’s much-anticipated score had literally blown away. Still no live music. Perhaps I had spent too long eavesdropping on a particularly compelling, not to say brutally athletic sex act. I’m pretty sure the Duchess wasn’t involved (in nearly 30 minutes of exploring I had still not encountered her). Would I? I think I saw one of my colleagues (I recognised the jumper) being dragged into an empty room by an unmasked courtier. No such luck.

But suddenly there was music and dancing and a Cardinal. And then I was in a kind of church with pews and a group of mellifluous woodwinds accompanying singing characters I could not identify and words I could not make out. In another room a beautiful threnody for strings was deeply redolent of Alban Berg, the composer Torsten Rasch’s self-confessed idol. As anyone who knows his thrilling orchestral song-cycle Mein herz brennt will know, this man writes most beautifully for both voice and orchestra. I just couldn’t get a handle on his score – probably because Punchdrunk shows eschew linearity and music to some extent – and especially with regard to development - demands it.

I think I saw and heard five or six of the opera’s nine scenes (there is no guarantee you’ll catch all of it unless you wisely follow the musicians) and I did – later rather than sooner – encounter the Duchess (the impressive contralto of Claudia Huckle) in a blackened room (scary) gazing at computer monitors all replicating the same image of a disappearing child (one of hers?). Her twin brother Ferdinand (fearless counter-tenor Andrew Watts), naked and bloodied, pushed me aside.

Punchdrunk’s priorities are to refract the drama and place greater emphasis on the dark and suffocating atmosphere of Webster’s nihilistic play. And if ENO’s part in all of this occasionally seemed incidental to overall effect, the final scene (where we do all arrive together) was jaw-droppingly operatic. No, I will not give away the final coup de theatre except to say that the body count is awesome.

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