Sunday, 6 July 2008

We will rock you this ain't

The first six months of this year has once again seen the theatres and galleries of London spoilt for choice for quality entertainment. But many of the real gems are the ones that pass the everyday radar of what is associated with main steam entertainment, and hide in the dark alley ways of London town. In a time when most theatre is based on the songs of an old band put together to a weak plot line written by a two faced old commie, its refreshing to find some brilliant shows.

At the beginning of this year we were graced with another fine show by the Punch drunk company which deservedly won a Critics' Circle Award last year for Faust, a stunning performance-art piece that took place across five floors of an abandoned document depository in darkest Wapping – this year they were back to reveal yet more of their twisted dramatic imagination.

They took over Edward Mountford's spookily labyrinthine 1891 municipal building, more recently an arts centre (BAC in Battersea) and turned the whole place into a thrilling, chilling celebration of the tormented genius of Edgar Allan Poe.

On arrival (in evening dress, preferably), you are issued with a carnival mask and a coin with which you will later be able to buy a cloak. You are then advised to set off, alone and masked, to explore.
There are no guides to tell you where to go, no way of knowing what you will find, see, touch, smell, hear or taste. journeys through dark corridors, and up and down steep back staircases, pushing nervously at doors to discover where they will lead. Sometimes you encounter an empty room, designed in meticulously detailed 19th-century style, perhaps with a coal fire burning, or a recently rumpled bed.

The whole of the BAC is transformed. Not just the rooms you'd recognise if you're familiar with the centre but all of it. You go up stairs, into basements and into really scary attics. You won't recognise any of this space. There is action in most of the rooms, be it a dressing room of a theatre, or a coffin hidden in a basement .Even when there isn't anything going on, you'll find yourself wondering around looking at all of the amazing props. Every inch of every room is covered.

At other moments you find yourself plunged right into the heart of some vivid drama of perverse infatuation or overwhelming despair.

Throughout the promenade, you discover splintered fragments of Poe's dark short stories – a heart being removed from a horribly frail old man as he sleeps, a desperate bridal night that turns into one of the most disturbing erotic ballets I have ever seen, a dinner party populated only by the insane.

Because you are masked, you feel as though you have been granted a Harry Potter cloak of invisibility. There's no embarrassment about getting up close to the performers, or of following them to wherever they lead you next.The silence is sometimes eerie, as is having no interaction with the other audience members. You're totally on your own.
At one stage, I suddenly found myself standing in the wings of a music hall, but it took me another half-hour to find the actual entrance to the red-velvet palace of varieties, where one is allowed to remove one's mask, have a drink of Absinthe and watch Victorian vaudeville acts of mind readers and dance hall ditties, before venturing off for further horrors of immurement, murder and marital strife.Among the highlights of my trip were a fabulously sinister opium den and an encounter with an exceedingly alluring female pharmacist who drew me to her and whispered intimately in my ear: "Only the saved pass through these doors; this is for your protection," as she pressed crushed herbs into the palm of my hand.

For over two hours time had stopped and I had been transported into a different era where the buzz of modern Leicester square is a million miles away.The disturbing finale perfectly timed brings everyone into the ballroom,you feel like you have been dropped into the ball scene of Eyes Wide Shut, crossed with the chaotic finally of Lord of the flies.

Move over Ben Elton you hypocritical twat, for true genius.

For those that missed out, when they have their next production ...Go Go Go.