The Duchess Of Malfi
Great Eastern Quay, London E16
Opened 13 July, 2010
I’ve often commented about the rights and wrongs of leaving a show before the end and then reviewing it; this is generally agreed to be an entirely unreasonable way to proceed, even if the review makes it clear one didn’t stay for the duration.  However, on one occasion in July I experienced an almost physical sense of liberation as I realised, “I don’t like being here; I don’t want to be here; and I’m not on formal duty, so I don’t have to be here,” and promptly shogged off.  This magnificent feeling descended upon me less (much less) than an hour into the English National Opera/Punchdrunk production of The Duchess Of Malfi in an otherwise empty commercial bulding in Beckton.

A number of online commenters, as usual, decided that Michael Billington in particular didn’t get it, and that he was hung up on exhorting the company to perform the piece in the right order.  It's quite easy to read Michael's remarks as dismissing non-linearity per se, but that rather begs the question.  You can't, conversely, dismiss or avoid linearity, because any live performance work is by its nature linear in that it exists in time, which as far as we know moves in one direction and along which we seem to travel at a common pace.  We may assemble meaning ourselves from pieces collected in a non-linear order, but the process of collection is itself linear in time, if you see what I mean.  Therefore, if a work strives to be less bound by that simple law of physics, it needs to bring something else to the table to counterbalance the deficit of linearity.


What did this work bring?  As far as I could see, nothing other than atmosphere, and same-old-same-old Punchdrunk atmosphere at that.  Certainly they seem to be treading the same rut as regards not caring about those of their audience who wear glasses, with their insistence that we wear masks throughout the production.  This meant that I had a choice of wearing my glasses inside my mask, so that they misted up and I couldn’t see; wearing them outside my mask, so that the focal length was wrong and I couldn’t see; not wearing them, so that I couldn’t see at all, at all; or wearing the mask on my forehead rather than my face.  (That, too, was not without its problems; the nose-pieces bits into the flesh, so that I had to wedge a handkerchief under the mask.  It all got quite ridiculous.)  38% of the British population wear glasses; given the likely unrepresentative class demographic of a Punchdrunk/ENO audience, that figure may well be rather higher for this particular group.  Punchdrunk know that the masks pose a problem for us, but continue to insist.  This suggests that they are more concerned with how a they want a production to look than with whether nearly half of their audience can see how it looks.  To me it suggests disdain for their punters.

As for the sensation of immersion in the opera itself... yes, I found it fleetingly remarkable to be in the middle of the orchestra, but the sensation was fleeting, and being in the middle of something isn't really so great if it's something you don't particularly like – Torsten Rasch's score simply isn't my kind of music.  Fair enough, that's my problem. Arguably, the issue of staleness is also my problem for having seen enough of the company's work already not to be captivated by this instance of it – people from Gainsborough to Girls Aloud have built careers on doing the same thing over and over again but doing it well.  However, in the same way as the masks issue, I think it may also be indicative of a certain attitude on the part of the makers.  And the structural issues are certainly the makers' problems rather than anyone else's, and it seems to me that those problems have not been solved and perhaps in some cases not even bothered about.


Now, I clearly am not in a position to pronounce an authoritative verdict on the production as a whole.  However, in the couple of scenes I did see, I think – to judge by other reviews – I got a fairly representative impression of the tack taken by the production (until the climax, which I obviously missed).  And I simply felt no reason to be there, and a number of reasons to stop being there.  So that’s what I did.  And this was, for once, on a paid-for ticket rather than a press freebie.  It felt good.  I could become a convert to walking out of shows.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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