Theatre

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. By Alison Croggon.

Because the Night

Jennifer Vuletic as Getrude in Because the Night.
Credit: Pia Johnson

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. Sometimes my theatre partner and I were the only people in a room, watching Polonius locking sinister-looking bottles in a wooden box or Gertrude (Jennifer Vuletic) musing about her alienated son; at other moments we were ranged against a wall with dozens of other ghostly audience members, watching the Queen declaim in a regal bedroom or an office full of surveillance tapes.

There are some very good performers in this production, but somehow their presence feels secondary to the experience. I suspect that because audience members may come and go at any moment, the actors’ relationship to the audience is inevitably uncertain. And they’re certainly not helped by the script.

Because the Night is hugely reliant on text (co-written by Lutton, Kamarra Bell-Wykes and Ra Chapman), which perhaps confirms the wisdom of Punchdrunk transforming Macbeth into wordless physical performance. No doubt out of the consciousness that each of us will get only part of the story, almost everything encountered in the production is full of a compulsion to explain.

Text is everywhere. It’s in the dialogue, which is heavily weighted by exposition and too often more reminiscent of Skyrim than Shakespeare; it’s in the diaries and documents we can open and read; it’s all over the walls, which sometimes look like the secret room of a paranoid conspiracy theorist. It’s a relief when you find a room that doesn’t attempt to explain anything, such as a liminal chamber filled with ultra-violet light that appears to be merely and mysteriously itself.

Very little was intriguing enough to resonate past its moment of discovery. What I didn’t feel was simply happy to be there. The more the show explained itself, the less I understood. I found myself continually bogged down in questions that went nowhere.

Screaming trees? Surely that’s from Dante’s Wood of the Suicides in Inferno? Does that mean that the workers were committing suicide? And what does that have to do with the boars that we keep encountering, which are supposedly sacrificed in the forest, or the giant pig on the dining table? Boars are mentioned nowhere in Hamlet, although of course the boar is Richard III’s heraldic symbol. But why Richard III? Or is it supposed to reference the Nordic sacrifice of a wild boar to Freya, to ensure fertility? And why are the workers, who seem to be planning a conspiracy against the surveillance state, so absent? No actor represents a worker, unless Polonius and his kids are supposed to? And so on and so forth, ad nauseam.

No doubt this says more about me than anything else, but it does point to a muddiness at the centre of the show’s conception, a sense that this world is cobbled together from a pile of superficial associations without the glue of deeper meaning. It means that once the novelty wears off, there’s nowhere to go. 

Because the Night continues until June 26 at The Malthouse, Melbourne.

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CULTURE Human Rights Arts and Film Festival

Cinemas throughout Melbourne, April 22–May 1

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FESTIVAL Echo Festival

Cranbrook, Tasmania, April 23–25

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MULTIMEDIA Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters

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Last chance

MULTIMEDIA NGV Triennial

NGV International, Melbourne, until April 18

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 17, 2021 as "On the basis of sets".

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Alison Croggon is The Saturday Paper’s arts editor.