The Duchess of Malfi, Great Eastern Quay, London

A ghost train for grown-ups that sets you down feeling bullied and bored

English National Opera's weakness for borrowed cool continues in The Duchess of Malfi.

This time, the bringers of cool are the theatre company Punchdrunk, while composer Torsten Rasch supplies an oily orchestral brew of late Berg and early Stockhausen. Cover your face with a white carnival mask and you are free to explore three floors of a disused office block in the boom-bust marshlands of Newham, east London, to touch, smell, spy and eavesdrop as a half-dozen scenes unfold simultaneously, exploding John Webster's narrative until the palsied pageantry of its shrieking climax.

Punchdrunk's compulsory masks serve a dual purpose, turning spectators into cast members and restricting their view. The darkened corridors of the ground floor suggest a place abandoned in terror. In the stairwells, bloodied rags are strewn on the floor. In an empty cell, faeces has been smeared on the wall. Creep up the stairs and the temperature drops. There is a forest fashioned from electric cables, clouds of sheet music suspended mid-air. The graveyard is the coldest place, the chapel the most forbidding. In a side-room, a man weeps over a recording of an infant crying. In another, CCTV monitors trace the mechanistic rituals of an abbatoir. Should you wish to hear Rasch's music in sequence, follow conductor Stephen Higgins to the vast four-poster where bloated Ferdinand (Andrew Watts) wrestles sweatily with his sister (Claudia Huckle), or watch the Cardinal's mistress (Julia Sporsén) toy with the long blonde hair of a compliant clarinettist.

Compliance is essential to the Punchdrunk anti-narrative format. More so, I suspect, than involvement in the emotions of the characters, as opposed to one's own. Not every door in Felix Barrett's installations of wardrobes, suitcases, computer monitors and medical samples is open to the public. The black-masked company members may not give out directions but will block your way. Hence I stumbled into brightly lit, fully functional urinals several times too often before Barrett's David-McVicar-to-the-power-of-10 finale. As to the drinks bar that is part of the show, I never found it.

Atavistic fears are not enough to sustain a three-hour promenade. Leaving Newham feeling bullied and bored, I'd guess that I heard three-quarters of Rasch's score (confident, conventional, a little didactic in its 60wpm vocal lines).

It's impossible to fault performers who give so much of themselves at such close range. But Duchess lacks the emotional and intellectual punch of Graham Vick's site-specific productions in Birmingham's broken factories and banks, and Rasch is not a figure to match Monteverdi, Beethoven, Verdi, Mozart or Berg. Punchdrunk may have boosted ENO's box office, but Birmingham Opera Company is a better model for expanding and stretching an audience than this ghost train for grown-ups.

Finally, Sir Charles Mackerras, who died last week at the age of 84, will be greatly mourned. His was not a jet-set career but one of unstoppable revolution and lasting substance, from the first flowerings of historically informed Handel to the startling textures of his recent Brahms. There were no extraneous gestures when he conducted, just tough-minded music-making of the highest sophistication and the deepest sincerity. Were the memories of his Dvorak, Beethoven, Britten and Mozart not enough, his spirit lives on in every note of Janacek, whose operas Mackerras championed from the late 1940s. To have heard, watched and learnt from him was an honour.

Next Week:

Anna Picard brushes away a furtive tear as Blackheath Community Opera brings Donizetti's Elixir of Love to the suburbs of south London

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones