The Masque of the Red Death, BAC, London<br/>Present Laughter, NT Lyttelton, London<br/>Rough Crossings, Lyric, Hammersmith, London

The dancing spectres have taken over the asylum
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Everyone who likes adventurous theatrical events should make a beeline for The Masque of the Red Death. Last year, the site-specific company Punchdrunk produced a spectacularly eerie promenade Faust in a disused warehouse. Now, inspired by the horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe, they have taken over the BAC in Battersea and transformed this vast Victorian edifice into a maze-like haunted mansion-going-on-madhouse. The director-designer Felix Barrett's stupendous Gothic installation is obsessively detailed in its decor. Edgy excitement is also generated when each punter is left to find their way around, to head down to the sepulchral basements or up to the mouldering attics or – if they prefer – to chase after the actor-dancers who play feverishly lustful ghouls, dashing in and out of the shadows.

I started, in almost pitch darkness, feeling my way along velvet-draped corridors, trying doors. It's like a thrilling kind of nightmare. One minute, I was stumbling into a cupboard crammed with animal skulls. The next, I was in a morbid parlour with a smell of stale cigars hanging in the air. Cut-glass decanters glimmer in the flickering light of a coal fire and a black cat is curled on a chair – a real, live, black cat.

In fact, there's a whole world hidden away in here: sinister surgeries, a bohemian cabaret-bar complete with live band, musty boudoirs and dressing-rooms hung with crinolines like ballooning ghosts. Meanwhile, the choreography (by Maxine Doyle) is breathtakingly dangerous, with amorous and murderously violent couples sliding, entwined, down banisters and hurling each other across rooms.

It is hard, if not hopeless, trying to piece the storylines together, but there's a powerful sensuousness to this show. The audience (all masked) are like voyeuristic spectres and can be sucked into the macabre goings-on too (though this is, in fact, carefully controlled). A pale vamp suddenly turned and clasped my hands in her ice-cold fingers. Whispering "Do you want to play a game?", she led me into a terrifying lumber room and locked the door, with what looked like a knife blade, while I screamed inwardly. Then she blindfolded me and it got kinkily weirder ... but go and see what happens to you.

When writing Present Laughter, Noël Coward was avoiding staring into the jaws of death and destruction. If not quite fiddling while Rome burned, he later recalled penning this light comedy – about a compulsively womanising star thesp – in spite of "dismal clairvoyance". Its premiere was cancelled when Britain declared war on Hitler in 1939.

Howard Davies's new production, in period costume, suggests a vein of depression running under the witty surface. Alex Jennings's Garry Essendine, notably, has a lonely moment in his pied-à-terre with the wireless playing, so we hear the bleak news of Germany invading Poland. Tim Hatley's set design, more heavily, underlines the sense of encroaching gloom, with a huge dark green chamber, sharply narrowing.

The political dimension is not really justified. The wireless is an addition. Nonetheless, Essendine comes over as strikingly real, like a semi-autobiographical portrait of a dissatisfied celebrity, and the despondency seeping through the devil-may-care façade of Jennings's ageing Don Juan is persuasive. In fact, one might wish his close circle's barbed and casual cruelties were brought out more sharply.

The cast is uneven, but Jennings is terrifically droll, swishing around in his silk dressing gown, and Sarah Woodward is on top form as his brusque, dowdy secretary. Highly entertaining.

Finally, Rough Crossings proved to be a problematically rough ride. Directed by Rupert Goold for his touring company Headlong, it is a bravely ambitious multimedia adaptation of Simon Schama's acclaimed historic saga, telling of the abolition of the slave trade. Unfortunately, Caryl Phillips's dramatic dialogue is creaky and, on the night I attended, the atmospheric video projections were kaput in the first half.

Still, the physical theatre is imaginatively fluid, using ropes as whips, plantation scythes and rigging. The narrative drive also gathers momentum as it focuses on the freed slaves' troubled new democracy, established in Sierra Leone under the leadership of the white pioneer, John Clarkson. There are reverberations with today's Western troops in Iraq and this dramatisation is sharp on the vestiges of supremacism in liberal whites and the competitive personality clashes that mess up political ideals.



'The Masque of the Red Death' (020 7223 2223) to 27 October; 'Present Laughter' (020 7452 3000) to 9 January; 'Rough Crossings' (0870 050 0511) to 13 October and touring

Comments