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.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder