Contamination (#10): Duchess of Malfi (Punchdrunk)

by on Jun.13, 2011

I wish I would have gone to this production of one of my favorite works of art:

You belong to the throng of identically masked people who have chosen to assemble where you are, and the blank visages offer no signals as to how the audience is responding. You, the watcher, are part of a faceless mob, abstract and infinitely distractible. Physically this “Duchess of Malfi” may allow unusually up-close-and-personal access to its mise-en-scène. Yet I’ve never attended a show at which I felt so utterly disconnected from the performers.

“Malfi” leaves you feeling powerless, confused, both overfed and underfed, and slightly contaminated. And though the production is as live as theater gets, it also approximates the everyday emotions of watching passively as the world is parsed, segmented and scattered on different screens. Its chilling suggestion — appropriate to an era drowning in an excess of disparate images — is that even as you feast on a surfeit of lurid vignettes, you, the audience, will never know the whole story.

[Interesting take on the by-now cliche idea (which I obviously don’t agree with) that we live in a maximalist world, so we need to tone it down to resist all those images.]

2 comments for this entry:
  1. Alice

    Brette and I attended the New York production of Sleep No More with several friends, and we were struck by how everyone had a different way of experiencing the performance. One friend took it upon himself to scare the other audience members by acting weird in small spaces; a repeat-attendee helped his friends find secret passages; another person climbed inside a coffin and closed the lid just to see what it was like. She also stuck one of the actors with straight pins while they were in the haunted tailor shop, just to see how far he would go. Another friend, who’s writing a dissertation on queer interiority in the Renaissance, insisted that she looked in every drawer and coat pocket and found scraps of paper with lines from Macbeth scrawled on them, whereas I found a lot of index cards full of bird trivia (my high school English teacher finished our Macbeth unit by saying, “if anyone has any idea about why there are all those birds there, let me know…” and I remembered it all these years later). I went back a second time and saw a hundred things I hadn’t seen before: a naked goat orgy/rave, a haunted detective agency and a haunted tea room, many other scenes that I hadn’t seen before, repeated scenes, etc. So in all of these cases, we interpreted it in really different ways depending not just on the play, but on how we thought of our experience with texts, games, and other media.

    Malfi is one of my favorite plays, too, so I hope it comes to New York!

  2. Johannes

    Wow, that does sound amazing. Please let us know if Malfi comes to NYC.