The action at Queen of the Night. Photo: Matteo Prandoni/BFAnyc.com
Show Hide image

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.

Harry Styles. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How podcasts are reviving the excitement of listening to the pop charts

Unbreak My Chart and Song Exploder are two music programmes that provide nostalgia and innovation in equal measure.

“The world as we know it is over. The apo­calypse is nigh, and he is risen.” Although these words came through my headphones over the Easter weekend, they had very little to do with Jesus Christ. Fraser McAlpine, who with Laura Snapes hosts the new pop music podcast Unbreak My Chart, was talking about a very different kind of messiah: Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, who has arrived with his debut solo single just in time to save the British charts from becoming an eternal playlist of Ed Sheeran’s back-catalogue.

Unbreak My Chart is based on a somewhat nostalgic premise. It claims to be “the podcast that tapes the Top Ten and then talks about it at school the next day”. For those of us who used to do just that, this show takes us straight back to Sunday afternoons, squatting on the floor with a cassette player, finger hovering over the Record button as that tell-tale jingle teased the announcement of a new number one.

As pop critics, Snapes and McAlpine have plenty of background information and anecdotes to augment their rundown of the week’s chart. If only all playground debates about music had been so well informed. They also move the show beyond a mere list, debating the merits of including figures for music streamed online as well as physical and digital sales in the chart (this innovation is partly responsible for what they call “the Sheeran singularity” of recent weeks). The hosts also discuss charts from other countries such as Australia and Brazil.

Podcasts are injecting much-needed innovation into music broadcasting. Away from the scheduled airwaves of old-style radio, new formats are emerging. In the US, for instance, Song Exploder, which has just passed its hundredth episode, invites artists to “explode” a single piece of their own music, taking apart the layers of vocal soundtrack, instrumentation and beats to show the creative process behind it all. The calm tones of the show’s host, Hrishikesh Hirway, and its high production values help to make it a very intimate listening experience. For a few minutes, it is possible to believe that the guests – Solange, Norah Jones, U2, Iggy Pop, Carly Rae Jepsen et al – are talking and singing only for you. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496