It was only last October when Lot’s Wife published an interview in which I “mourned the prospect” that it would likely take years before immersive theatre returned to a post-coronavirus world. A mere five months later, Melbourne’s own Malthouse Theatre has dispelled all previous apprehension with their bold production Because the Night opening on 23 March.
Because the Night is an immersive theatrical experience, loosely inspired by the characters and plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In what I can only crudely approximate to a theatrical ‘choose your own adventure’ or the notion of stepping into a real life video game world, audiences freely wander through a maze of rooms and corridors in the Malthouse building, which has been completely transformed into the fictional town of Elsinore for this production. A cast of six actors take on the primary characters from Hamlet, who can be followed (or not) at will as they move throughout the space. Audience members are not permitted to speak or touch the actors, and are silent witnesses to the drama that unfolds in front, behind, or around the corner from them.
Mounting a show like Because the Night is an audacious choice for the company. The global COVID-19 situation is still precarious; Victorian audiences have only recently returned to theatres, and uncertainties around changing government restrictions continue to plague businesses and citizens each time a new COVID-19 outbreak threatens to put us all back in lockdown again. It would hardly reflect poorly on the Malthouse if they went for the safer option – both in the sense of a more traditional retelling of Hamlet as well as in the sense of keeping audience and actors separated by stage and seats. However, Because the Night is arguably just what theatre-deprived Melbourne audiences need after a long intermission that has kept live performance from our city.
On the night I attended the show, face masks were optional (in line with current government restrictions). However, specially created horned masks covering the top half of the face were strictly compulsory, along with a poncho-style black cloak covering the body. These garments, designed to ensure anonymity, became like another aspect of the set design, and enhanced the eerie atmosphere throughout the building. Whilst I managed just fine wearing this special mask over the top of my glasses, I observed some audience members with their masks off due to difficulty and discomfort with wearing both. This slightly compromised the effect of being unable to see audience members’ faces, so any bespectacled patrons planning to attend the show may wish to wear contact lenses, or be prepared to wear a mask over their glasses.
Although no prior knowledge of Hamlet was necessary to follow the narratives playing out across the various rooms and spaces in the building, the fragmented nature of the production did occasionally lead to confusion. Indeed, I didn’t even come across the character of Claudia (adapted from the original Claudius) until the final scene, and I didn’t become aware of the timber workers and the significance of their plight until much later, resulting in a delayed appreciation of their role in the overall narrative. While it might seem like a drawback to inevitably miss out on parts of the action, enormous insight can be gleaned from observing singular characters’ reactions and interactions with one another. A greater understanding of a particular character’s motives and actions adds complexity and nuance to the dramatic final scene of the show. After all, it’s not often the case that one enters a situation privy to every other party’s perspective and background.
Audience uncertainty around how to behave in this environment was also palpable at the beginning of the show, though as the night went on, people became bolder and more explorative of the set and individual characters’ journeys. At times, it was frustrating if other audience members blocked you from following a particular actor’s path, causing you to lose sight of their narrative. Nevertheless, there was no shortage of drama that could be witnessed, and an inadvertent separation could lead you to stumble across a delightfully unexpected scene.
It must be stressed however that Because the Night is an immersive, rather than interactive experience. Anyone expecting metatheatrical fourth wall breaking might be disappointed, but those squirming at the thought of audience participation can breathe a sigh of relief. The fourth wall may now only be 1.5 metres away, but interactive theatre this is not. While it might be possible (as is notorious in Punchdrunk’s conceptually similar production Sleep No More) for actors and audience members to have very close, potentially individualised encounters, actors never break character and do not go out of their way to interact with audiences.
The innovation and scale of this project must be applauded. Bringing theatre back to Melbourne, especially in this format, is no mean feat, and the entire Malthouse team have succeeded in creating an experience that engages many of the sensory faculties from the moment audience members enter the world of Elsinore. However, living up to the sheer hype surrounding similar endeavours – such as the infamous Sleep No More at the McKittrick Hotel in New York City – is challenging, particularly when it took a global pandemic to put the show on hiatus after nearly 10 years of success.
Whilst the execution of the final scene is undeniably spectacular and the concept of exploring an entire world built for the show is both thrilling and intriguing, I would hesitate before deeming it the next cult-like spectacle that Sleep No More has become. However, given that the bulk of Melburnian audiences may be unfamiliar with this kind of theatre, a direct comparison with Sleep No More is not particularly useful, nor likely to detract from the incredibly rare, unique experience that the Malthouse Theatre has created.
A special acknowledgement must be given to lighting designer, Amelia Lever-Davidson, and composition and sound designer, J. David Franzke, whose respective contributions stand out from the outset. Extremely effective lighting and sound effects create an ominous ambience, which accentuates the David Lynch-esque setting of the show. Without revealing too much detail, the combination of sound and lighting during the cleverly executed scene in which Polonius is murdered, as well as during the climactic finale, enhance the visceral thrill that ripples through the body, as audience members share in the action at close range.
We are truly privileged in Melbourne to have a theatre company such as the Malthouse, who are willing and able to take risks on productions like Because the Night. May we hope to experience more theatre of its kind now and in the post-Coronavirus years to come.
Because the Night is playing at the Malthouse Theatre from 23 March 2021.