The Duchess of Malfi

Punchdrunk updates a decadent tragedy.

The Duchess of Malfi
Great Eastern Quay, London E16

In a round-up nine months ago of the best theatre of the past decade, I somehow forgot about Punchdrunk's Masque of the Red Death at Battersea Arts Centre in London in 2008. The error still nags me - an omission for which I was rightly reprimanded in the NS letters page. Masque was not a play but immersive art, a scattering of terrifying scenes and eerie mises en scène from Edgar Allan Poe's story, located in the rooms and corridors of the old town hall. Perhaps, on some level, I did not recognise it as theatre at all, although a theatrical experience it most certainly was.

Since horror stories are not generally regarded as great art, no one complained that, by tearing Edgar Allan Poe's novella into gobbets, Punchdrunk was committing sacrilege. No one should do so now the company has turned the technique on John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. Its plot is too convoluted, macabre, violent and sensationalist to be taken seriously. The only reason the play is still rated is its language. Quotations from it - "Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle. She died young", and so on - are still in educated heads and in embossed letters on the covers of paperbacks. Malfi is a prime example of artistic decadence. Turning it into an opera, as Punchdrunk and the company's collaborators at English National Opera did here, was entirely appropriate: opera is a decadent art.

Provided, therefore, one was not looking for profundity, as one wandered around a deserted office block in the East End of London in search of The Duchess of Malfi, the opera was immense fun, a fairground ride for adults. I kind of knew that Punchdrunk would go big on the duchess's brother's lycanthropy, a peculiar form of the disease in Ferdinand's case, in that the wolf hair grew inside (rather than outside) the skin. It is a minor embellishment in the play, but was here the occasion for anteroom after anteroom being done up as a medical laboratory, one of them containing the wolf man's lair. Naturally, essays on Freud's patient Sergei Pankejeff are available to read.

Our meanderings at this stage were accompanied by white noise or, perhaps, the sounds of a ghost orchestra tuning up. Once someone had taken the initiative to use the lift and ride to the first floor, the singing started. From the balcony, we looked down on what looked like a particularly erotic routine from Strictly Come Dancing. A woman in red, the duchess herself, sang at her lover, the steward Antonio, so intimately that we might have been in a sex dive. Claudia Huckle, holding all the notes, literally climbed the walls in passion. Later, she gave birth on a playground swing. We saw the resulting child's face cradled by a midwife on a small television monitor. The cardinal, Malfi's other bad brother (who is also out to kill her for remarrying beneath her), was meanwhile spotted in various degrees of flagrante with his mistress, Julia. There were nine such tableaux.

I am not sure if I came across them all, diverted as I was by expeditions to the shrine of Our Lady of Loretto and by following Freddie Tong's
cardinal as he sleepwalked stark naked. At times, I amused myself, too, watching audience members trip over low furniture in the dark and spotting Derren Brown, Will Gompertz and Mark Lawson beneath their tight-fitting masque masks.

The staging and design, though superb (one room smelled of roses, the second floor was a petrified forest), did few favours for the repetitive, tune-free but fittingly anguished music of the German composer Torsten Rasch. Nor could one make out much of Ian Burton's libretto (no surtitles, obviously). But the process was highly evocative of the play's spirit: a long stare down the oubliette to the mental dungeons of sexual obsession and Webster's mad head. The deserted and repopulated location also made me think of the different sorts of bad deed committed in this old office in boom time. But maybe that was just me.

Music now seems to me the element missing from Masque. English National Opera here had the worst of the deal. Only in the extraordinary final scene, when, again by some alchemy, we found ourselves all united in a huge arena, did we get an idea of how Felix Barrett, the director and designer, might bring a conventional opera alive. The torture and execution of the duchess aboard a long runway and her final hoisting aloft from a rope were shocking. The curtains around us were pulled aside to reveal scores of other effigies, hanging like dead carcasses above us. Webster was much obsessed by death. So is Punchdrunk.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times