The action at Queen of the Night. Photo: Matteo Prandoni/BFAnyc.com
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Celebrating art-as-commerce: what happens when immersive theatre gets popular

New production Queen of the Night – backed by the same producer as Punchdrunk’s wildy popular immersive theatre experience Sleep No More – seems entirely predicated on the notion that spectacle, and spectacle alone, is what audiences want.

If there's one thing producer-impresario Randy Weiner does right, it's spectacle. The Box, his Lower-East-Side hardcore-burlesque venture, is among New York City's most legendarily debauched nightlife excursions – to this day, one of my most otherwise licentious friends refuses to speak about what he saw there (there's now a London Soho branch too). His backing of Punchdrunk's interactive, immersive Sleep No More, is one of New York's most astonishing success stories: a cult sensation with virtually no advertising that's managed to expand beyond its theatrical roots to include a show-themed after-hours speakeasy, a full restaurant, and a rooftop bar. And Weiner's most recent venture (with director Christine Jones, Queen of the Night, seems entirely predicated on the notion that spectacle – and spectacle alone – is what audiences want. Set in and around the (admittedly gorgeous) restored Diamond Horseshoe Club at the Paramount Hotel, this piece of quasi-interactive dinner theatre is among the most visually striking performances I've ever seen. Chandeliers, taxidermied leopards, beetle-shell inlay, and other carnival-style curiosa abound (credit to interior designer Meg Sharpe, creative director Giovanna Battaglia, and “set and scent” designer Douglas Little).

Unfortunately, spectacle is just about the only thing Queen of the Night has going for it. Ostensibly based on Mozart's opera (a flimsy thread of the virginal Pamina's initiation keeps the show from total anarchy), Queen of the Night feels less like a piece in its own right than like an attempt to replicate the phenomenal success of Sleep No More by people who have never been to the theatre. All the necessary immersive-theatre boxes have been ticked: inhumanly attractive, scantily-clad, omnisexually-inclined performers, check; boundary-pushing erotic encounters with audience members, check, individual audience members whisked away for the kind of mind-blowing experiences they're sure to brag about on Facebook, check. But because every encounter and performance – from the acrobats to the jugglers – cranks up the energy to eleven, there's little scope for any kind of emotional, let alone a narrative, arc.

Non-narrative, non-linear performance can work, certainly (and I've gone on record repeatedly with my love for the no-less immersive Sleep No More). But Queen of the Night doesn't simply lack a unifying storyline. Worse, its lack of cohesion seems entirely predicated on bread-and-circuses-style cynicism. Its audience members – gorging ourselves on lobster and roast duck, gulping down cocktails – are invited to congratulate themselves, and one another, on being (presumably) rich enough, powerful enough, connected enough, well-informed enough to be in attendance at such a spectacle; the implicit message in each morsel of lobster or drizzle of champagne is that such aesthetic excess is to be understood as a kind of reward for being present: a message only intensified by the very obviously tiered seating; those willing to splash out $500+ a ticket are marked out with special amulets, and get to dine with the titular Queen herself.

The actors, acrobats, magicians and other performers, it must be said, do an outstanding job. They're all outrageously talented – so much so that it becomes difficult to watch the increasingly outlandish physical demands placed upon them in the service of dazzling spectators. (One of the most compelling moments in the show came when one of the otherwise flawless acrobats missed a single trick: transforming his act from a purely virtuosic display into something imbued with real human stakes and significance). That said, even the floor show segments can feel seedy; there's something inherently distasteful about choosing to show what seems to be Pamina's sexual awakening through a dance sequence that more closely evokes rape, or about using a series of gay kisses as a “transgressive” finale to one particular sequence, as if homosexuality were as much a spectacle as fire-eating or astounding acrobatics.

That said, one strong scene, involving Dmitri Hatton as the hapless Papageno, manages to imbue the Diamond Horseshoe with some genuine character-based emotion, however briefly. That it was played in part for laughs – the audience egging on Papageno's despair – was at once disheartening and unsurprising, though the setup hinted at a more clever, even subversive, relationship of show to viewer than was evident elsewhere.

It is perhaps idealistic – if not thoroughly anachronistic – to wish for art to have some moral or spiritual value. But experiencing Queen of the Night, I felt that I was watching a show that gleefully celebrated art-as-commerce: lavish spectacle, like the sumptuous food, as something for conspicuous consumption, rather cathartic experience. For all its glitter and glitz, Queen of the Night proves a surprisingly complacent encounter: not because of a lack of intensity in the performance itself, but because of an utter laziness to the possibilities of what art, let alone the people who make and experience it, can be.

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories