Much has already been said about Malthouse Theatre’s Because the Night, both of its similarities to UK theatre company Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More and its uniqueness to Melbourne’s theatrical landscape, in type and scale. But what is it actually like to experience? Is it fun and/or meaningful?
Donning black capes and rabbit masks straight out of Donnie Darko and diving headlong into the labyrinth – I entered via the “Gymnasium”, but you might also get there through the “Bedroom” or the “Royal Office” – the audience is genuinely free to explore the myriad crannies and playing spaces that make up the set.
While this freedom provides much of the thrill, it also paradoxically proves the show’s greatest obstacle. How can you follow a play when you’re only randomly and occasionally coming across it?
It’s based on Hamlet of course, but this isn’t much help when the characters are such faint simulacra of the originals. The central dilemma is the same, Hamlet’s father having been murdered by his own sibling, in this case a gender-reversed Claudia, who is now in a highly-charged sexual relationship with Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. But there is none of Shakespeare’s revenge plot, nor much suggestion of Hamlet’s deep existential horrors of the hearth.
There are other, newer layers. This Elsinore is modelled on Tasmanian timber mill towns of the 1980s, and the sense of the natural environment as oppressor and agent of vengeance is strong. There’s more than a whiff of rebellion in the air too, with a state-sanctioned carnival of misrule that threatens, via the character of Laertes, to infiltrate and undermine the royal family’s tenuous grip on power.
It all works best on the level of mood and tone, with J. David Franzke’s sound composition and Amelia Lever Davidson’s lighting providing a palpable sense of menace and foreboding. The narrative is clearest in backstory, the struggles and suspicions of Old Hamlet evidenced in secret bunkers and letters of confession stuffed in desk drawers. Where it tends to fall apart is in action, in causality and consequence.
For all that Hamlet is famously a play of inaction, of the sweet prince’s reluctance to take control or mete justice, it actually proceeds inexorably via narrative turning points – acts of political intrigue, accidental slayings and forged letters eventually leading to rigged duels, poisoned chalices and dead royals. Because the Night does contain its own narrative pivots, but you’re lucky if you come across any.
I witnessed the death of Polonius, a rushed affair with none of the complexity or emotional impact of Shakespeare’s closet scene. I saw Hamlet opine about his own lack of impetus, but watching an actor punch a crypt and say “I need to act” only made me long for a snippet of “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I”. The comparisons are unavoidable and make the text (by Malthouse artistic director Matthew Lutton, Ra Chapman and Kamarra Bell-Wykes) seem schematic at best, and banal at worst.
Lutton’s direction of the actors is slightly off too. Performances are hammy and demonstrative in the intimate playing spaces; even as skilful an actor as Belinda McClory feels cartoonish. Best on the night I attended were Harvey Zielinski’s hangdog Laertes and Rodney Afif’s fierce Polonius, perhaps because their roles seemed furthest removed from Shakespeare’s prototypes.
Certainly the overwhelming star of the show is the design – Dale Ferguson’s fiendish architectural design and Marg Horwell and Matilda Woodroofe’s intricate and endlessly fascinating set design. Each room offers new and unusual perspectives on this liminal world, from crusty band rooms full of empty beer bottles to impeccable display rooms lined with ceremonial pigs in glass cabinets. Walls and locked doors are impassible one moment, only to open into hidden and wondrous spaces the next.
The true joy of Because the Night lies in this sense of being imbedded in its landscapes, that feeling that we – just like Old Hamlet immortalised on the walls of the palace – are the real ghosts of the piece. There is one moment when Claudia (Maria Theodorakis) looks directly at the audience members surrounding her in horror, as if she has just glimpsed through the veil of mortality and found these haunting masked figures peering back.
So, yes. It certainly is fun. The sort of fun I can easily imagine diving back into. As for meaning, you need to get it where you can find it, and it’s only fleetingly with the actors and scenes. Because the Night is less an immersive play than a tone poem you can walk around inside. Make of it what you will.
Because The Night
Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank (Melbourne)
Performance: Friday 9 April 2021 – 6.00pm
Season extended to 26 June. New performance dates now on sale to Malthouse Muses and Mates!
Information and Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au
Image: Welcome to Elsinore / Harvey Zielinski as Laertes & Rodney Afif as Polonius / Maria Theodorakis as Claudia – all photos by Pia Johnson
Review: Tim Byrne