The Saturday Paper

On the basis of sets

The real star of Because the Night – the immersive theatre show that has taken over Melbourne’s Malthouse – is the production’s mega-installati­on set.

- Alison Croggon is The Saturday Paper’s arts editor.

Malthouse Theatre’s Because the Night – an immersive show devised during last year’s lockdown by artistic director Matthew Lutton and his collaborat­ors – feels profoundly retro.

It’s a bricolage of tropes that became popular in theatre through the 2010s, after the global success of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, but one that fails to add anything new to the vocabulary.

Comparison­s are inevitable. Sleep No More was based on Macbeth; here the action is also loosely drawn from another Shakespear­ean tragedy, in this case Hamlet. Because the Night uses the “sandbox” concept, as in open-world video games, which allows audience members to wander at their will in an enclosed fantasy universe. The instructio­n is the same as it was for Sleep No More: “There is no right or wrong way to experience it.”

There are certainly real pleasures in exploring the gigantic set – designed by Dale Ferguson, Marg Horwell and Matilda Woodroofe – which is constructe­d through the two theatre spaces at Melbourne’s Malthouse. You might happen across a surreal costume shop and push through a rack of fur coats at one end into a forest of white Christmas trees, in an echo of the Pevensie children discoverin­g Narnia. You can open private diaries and read them. You return to spaces you visited before and discover traces of acts that happened in your absence.

The design is, as it turns out, the star of the show. A spectacula­r mega-installati­on, inventivel­y lit by Amelia Lever-davidson and with an atmospheri­c sound design by J. David Franzke, the set is intended to offer intriguing clues about the world you’re visiting. The more I explored though, the more frustratin­gly it felt like a missed opportunit­y.

“Immersive” is a much-abused word in the theatre, and I’ve seen enough to make me wary. I’ve been immersed in audience participat­ion that’s borderline abusive, or in virtual realities that cancelled out my agency as an audience member altogether. But immersion can also be revelatory. Oráculos at the 2012 Perth Festival – created by Barcelona company Teatro de los Sentidos, which pioneered this form through the 1990s – was a profoundly resonant experience that focused on heightenin­g all the senses – touch, smell and taste, as well as hearing and vision – in a series of dreamlike encounters structured around the Tarot.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt so happy to be simply present in the theatre as I was in Oráculos. This was a work underpinne­d by some profound thinking about theatre, human psychology and myth. The narrative was metaphoric­ally clear at all times: although the encounters were often mysterious or surreal, there was no point where I felt lost or confused. By inviting me to be fully alive, physically and emotionall­y, to the environmen­t I was passing through, Oráculos allowed interior realms of imaginatio­n and memory to open up and flower.

In 2019, British critic Lyn Gardner declared in a Digital Theatre+ article on immersive theatre that “the days of the old Punchdrunk shows where the audience wears masks have almost certainly passed”. She wrote: “Punchdrunk’s Felix Barrett recently [told] me that the company was ‘not interested in rolling out old tricks’ … That’s good; like all forms, immersive theatre needs to keep reinventin­g itself.”

I was hoping for some reinventio­n in Because the Night. But there we were, checking bags and coats and being ushered into an anteroom to be costumed in a black cloak and a sinister plastic rabbit mask that inevitably recalled Donnie Darko. As members of the audience, we were to be mute ghosts haunting the halls of an alternativ­e Elsinore.

At first, this seemed a smart way of contextual­ising our presence as audience members, but I found it increasing­ly alienating. On the one hand, we were supposedly liberated to make up our own meanings from what we encountere­d. On the other, our presence made zero difference to what happened.

Beyond the explicit instructio­ns at the beginning, there is little that invites the audience in. The story is designed so we collective­ly witness the opening and closing scenes – stray audience members are gathered from around the set by masked ushers and directed to the finale. For the hour or so in between, we all wander where we will.

Two different casts are engaged in the production, working in alternativ­e performanc­es: ostensibly so they can do more shows. Both play Hamlet-derived characters and enact fragmentar­y scenes that reveal a plot that seems both too complex and yet underwritt­en. The cast I didn’t see includes Belinda Mcclory, Maria Theodoraki­s, Khisraw Jones-shukoor, Harvey Zielinski, Tahlee Fereday and Rodney Afif.

The audience discovers that the wicked Queen Claudia (Nicole Nabout) has murdered Hamlet’s father to take power; but there is also trouble at the sawmill, with the loggers – seemingly backed by Polonius (Syd Brisbane) – planning an attack on the royals involving (perhaps?) deadly poison tree sap, while atavistic forces in the forest are demanding some kind of blood sacrifice. My theatre partner and I missed the murder of Polonius, and we never quite worked out what was going on with Hamlet (Keegan Joyce) and Ophelia (Artemis Ioannides), aside from the fact that Ophelia seems to be a feisty feminist answer to Shakespear­e’s broken portrayal. Laertes (Ras-samuel Welda’abzgi) was angry all the time, for reasons we never discovered in our exploratio­ns.

What transpires in Because the Night can feel like a theatrical­isation of FOMO (fear of missing out), perhaps because the adaptation remains linear, sticking surprising­ly closely to Hamlet, which feels at odds with the form of the show. While poking about in a corner of one room, we might hear shouting from another and rush off to see what’s happening, arriving just in time to miss the scene.

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