Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Faust, frightening

To Wapping for Punchdrunk's site-specific production of Faust, and if you can find a more frightening and intense evening of performance about, I'd be too scared to go.

This is less of a review, more of a colour piece - atmosphere and mood, not 'what fabulous lighting' and 'the acting was more wooden than a Louis Quatorze bureau' - and was written for my secret, non-blogging, real-world life.

I will just say - to tantalise you, lacking a full review - that it was one of the most brilliant pieces of theatre I've ever experienced and that next time Punchdrunk puts on a show, don't book, because I don't want tickets to sell out before I can get one.

Here goes...


I’m on my way to hell, and it’s nothing like they tell you. It’s cold, so cold that I can hear the chattering teeth of the woman next to me. I can’t see her because I’m nearly blind behind a mask, but then so is she, so luckily she can’t see my hands shaking.

And we’re going upwards. Who knew you went up to hell? The industrial elevator shudders its path upwards and all I can think is, This is how it ends, with a shuddering of wheel against cable and a chattering of teeth.

How has it come to this? The elevator is full of willing victims, a play’s audience more like cold cattle on the way to the abattoir. Hell is what we paid the ticket price for, and hell is what we are getting.

This hell is part of a production of Goethe’s Faust by the site-specific theatre company, Punchdrunk. They take over a space – now an abandoned warehouse in east London – and turn it into a new, unfamiliar world, where the play’s action moves from one carefully created location to another and the audience is masked for anonymity. Punchdrunk want the audience to recapture excitement and anticipation, not the accustomed passivity of regular theatre. Anticipation has edged its way into terror.

So I can see little behind my mask, and although it submits to an adjustment, this makes the fear worse. We are pushed out of the elevator in dribs, several deposited on each freezing floor, and now I can see out of my mask, I can only see darkness and my breath rising before me. Most of the warehouse is near pitch, sometimes only relieved by a corridor lined with church candles or a red neon crucifix.

A woman ahead of me whispers to her partner and they head into a burgundy parlour. I follow, and we stumble on Mephistopheles making his deal with the Angel, the first stage of the play, which leads to Faust’s deal with the devil for immortality. But Punchdrunk have not even made this easy: words are gone, replaced by actions. There is complete quiet as the terrified voyeurs watch the transaction, then – Christ! – Mephistopheles grabs me as he walks out and beckons me to follow him.

He pounds through the corridors and hits a stairwell, pounds up there and pounds along another darkened corridor. I follow behind, my heart pounding and my mind confused. Now I’m running to follow him. We arrive in what looks like Faust’s study, and there is more voiceless action.

After this scene, I lose Mephistopheles and Faust and have to wander the silent building alone, coming across dozens of others doing the same, their bewilderment and panic hidden behind their masks. This is part of Punchdrunk’s plan. I only catch snatches of other scenes, so diffusely are they performed. But I catch the final scene, Faust’s descent into hell.

Mephistopheles teases him, beats him, all silent except for the Latin Mass screaming at us from nowhere. Faust is dragged off backwards into the darkness as a light bulb swings, giving scant illumination but lighting his terrified face, and the audience thinks, we know how you feel.

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