You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, we were quite excited about Punchdrunk’s ‘super-immersive’ staging of Faust. Well last Saturday evening we got the chance to see the performance for ourselves, and we certainly weren’t disappointed.
For those not familiar with the story of Faust, it revolves around an eminent scholar (Faust) entering into a pact with the devil (represented by Mephistopheles). However, this is no ordinary staging of this story – Punchdrunk specialise in creating “deeply immersive narratives in which audiences can experience live performance in extraordinary spaces.” And they’re not kidding – the performance is spread over five floors of a disused warehouse in Wapping.
But it’s not just the setting that makes this performance so unusual, as Punchdrunk have also sought to challenge the traditional interface between the audience and the performers by encouraging the audience to interact with the actors in the same space, and to explore the different narrative strands as they see fit. As they put it:
The plot unfolds in layers of simultaneous events to be encountered by chance and at will, each character carrying their own account of a complex, interconnected tale… You are free to roam the production in your own time, follow any theme, storyline or performer you wish, or simply soak up the atmosphere of magical, fleeting worlds.
The performance started with the audience members being handed featureless white masks and instructed to keep them on at all times. With audience and performers sharing the same space and often interacting, the masks are used to distinguish between actors and punters. We were then randomly distributed across the warehouse’s five floors and encouraged to explore for ourselves.
Straight away it became apparent that a rather unsettling atmosphere was going to form a large part of our ‘immersion’, with subdued lighting and moody soundscapes that match the story’s diabolical nature helping to set the scene around the vast set. Very few parts of the set were well lit; many of them were illuminated only by the occasional candle on the floor. But where the electricity bill may have been economical, the huge effort that must have gone into the set construction would have blown the performance’s budget sky-high. And it was here that the exploration of the space became so fascinating, as we wandered through forests (seemingly populated by real pine trees), had coffee in a café, explored a corn-field, walked down dimly lit corridors lined with statues of the Virgin Mary and watched a film in a cinema. There were a few occasions that we felt we had become part of a David Lynch film, as well as parts of the set that reminded us of the spooky tension of Resident Evil.
The actors’ interactions with the audience were varied. Much of the time we were just ghosts to them, they would pass through us as if we weren’t there, and with our expressionless white masks we could easily be isolated from any involvement in the narrative – we were merely anonymous observers, or occasionally even voyeurs. At other times the actors would interact with random audience members, such as partying performers dragging audience members onto a dancefloor to jive at a ‘Walpurgis Night’ celebration, or the demonic Mephistopheles causing mischief and discomfort by intimidating and generally freaking out the punters.
Following the narrative in any coherent manner was difficult, even through it repeated itself twice during the course of the evening. Following a main character around the set could sometimes be tricky – large numbers of audience members all had the same idea and conspired to get in each other’s way. We soon opted to give up on that approach and explore some of the more obscure interactions that were occurring away from the main thrust of the narrative. Although some of these interactions could be quite mundane, the actors’ ability to remain in character throughout the most seemingly pointless encounters helped to deepen the sense of immersion.
It was one of these ‘off-piste’ wanderings that provided the most electrifying experience of the evening for us. In a quiet area of the set we were approached by a performer who led us by the hand into a small dimly lit room, filled with a great swell of dark choral music. This Londonista found himself alone in the room with just one performer – no other actors or audience members were present. We won’t detail what happened in the room except to say that it was mildly terrifying, but intensely stimulating and (thankfully) completely harmless. The sheer dramatic intensity of what we had experienced left our hands trembling.
The actors’ performances were powerful and convincing, although much was portrayed without the use of any dialogue – instead preferring to communicate through clear gestures and expressions, and an amount of ‘dance’. This approach was much less naff than it sounds, and was quite effective in underlining the surreal atmosphere.
Following the breathtakingly dark and dramatic finale in the building’s basement, we suddenly realised that we had been exploring the performance for almost three hours, and that we were quite weary from both the physical and mental exertion of the evening. It is a testament to the compelling and mesmeric nature of the event that we still wanted more.
The Punchdrunk website indicates that Faust’s run has been extended to December 30th. If you’re able-bodied and not too scared of the dark, you really can’t afford to miss it.