Thomas Sutcliffe: My nightmare at a horror show

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The Independent Online

I've been feeling like the designated driver at a really wild party this week – and not just a good night out at the pub, but one of those once-in-a-decade shindigs that you know people will be talking about for years. Everyone else was intoxicated, reeling and exhilarated. I was stone cold sober and flickering between indulgent bemusement, envy and outright impatience at the delirium all around me.

The occasion was one of the opening nights of The Masque of the Red Death, Punchdrunk theatre company's latest production, which has taken over the Battersea Arts Centre from attic to basement for a celebration of the Gothic sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. Audience members are issued with a white Venetian carnival mask and ushered into the BAC's labyrinthine interior, where they can wander wherever their whim (and their courage) takes them.

You push open one door and find yourself in a room of sinister reticence, the walls papered with copperplate notes and the bed rumpled; or you follow the sound of a shriek down a corridor and catch up with a choreo-graphed rape or a strange tableau of chloroform abduction. And, judging from the glowing reviews and the feverish ticket sales, I was pretty much alone in being left underwhelmed by the experience. Everyone else was doing a rapturous conga; I was surreptitiously checking my watch and wondering when I could get away.

Which is fine by me, and, I suspect, fine by the production too, as it comes well armed against customer disappointment with the familiar rhetoric of participatory experiment. You only get out what you're prepared to put in, is the implication, with the useful corollary that audience members who don't get much out have somehow failed in their duty to the producers, rather than the other way round.

I'm even prepared to believe that this is so, having an engrained phobia of audience involvement that makes me a very poor candidate for this kind of theatrical adventure. It takes a hell of a lot more than a white mask to unlock my inhibitions, which were still effectively in place when one performer seized me by the shoulders and pleaded hysterically for my help (I suppose mortification is an Edgar Allan Poe kind of emotion, but I'm not sure that was what they were after). And it's only fair to say that other visitors were having no such problems, gamely chatting away in cod-Victorian to the soubrettes and boulevardiers who occasionally buttonhole you. There is even – and this is surely a theatrical innovation that could be adapted more widely – a bar that you can go to in the middle of the performance without actually leaving the theatre.

So I entirely buy the notion that I'm the one who's missing something rather than everyone else. But I can't help feeling, as the only sober man in the room, that it might be worth pointing one thing out. And that is just how dull suggestive ambiguity can get if that's all that's on the menu. Quite a few people have made the point that going to see The Masque of the Red Death is like stepping into someone else's dream. To which one can only respond that an encounter with someone else's dream is usually a byword for tedium, particularly if their dream is dressed with hand-me-down Gothic (a mode that is in any case unusually prone to pretentious enigma).

What's more, adopting the props and mood of Poe's stories, while necessarily abandoning their narrative progression (since you can't guarantee that the audience will be in a position to appreciate it) only increases the feeling that we're being tantalisingly allowed to smell the meat but never actually to bite into it. I don't want to spoil anyone's memories, you understand, or put anyone off a visit – and I can even imagine myself going to another Punchdrunk production (their depth of detail is genuinely impressive). But next time I'd love to see them take a risk with the categorical, and then maybe I could get legless too.

* Last week's column about the appearance of brands in works of high art prompted some intriguing examples from readers. Michael Grosvenor Myer points out that the pianoforte Frank Churchill sends to Jane Fairfax in Emma is identified as a Broadwood, and that Austen also writes of Gowland's Lotion in Persuasion. Cahal Dallat sent in a blizzard of unexpected product placements, including Samuel Beckett's use of Blue Band margarine in Embers, Louis MacNeice's mention of Ryvita in a 1936 poem, and Eliot's namecheck of Baedeker guidebooks and ABC tea-rooms. I wish I'd had access to their erudition when I wrote the piece, and it seemed a pity not to pass it on this week.

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