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Review: Because the Night at Malthouse Theatre

Review By Stephanie Lee

Thrown into a world of endless possibilities, the audience of Because the Night is invited to become silent watchers as the drama of the Elsinore royal family unfolds before them. Directed and pioneered by Matthew Lutton, the Artistic Director of the Malthouse Theatre Company, the show concept was forged out of a year where live theatre disappeared and people longed for the liveliness of the night to return once more. Certainly the show delivers just that, a night full of lively performances.

Staged in the Malthouse theatres, the immersive adventure mostly follows the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, however, instead of being a town in Denmark, Elsinore is a logging town in the 80s plagued by trees that are killing people. The other major difference is Claudius, who is actually Claudia in this adaption- a queen who was allowed by the king to see his wife Gertrude in secret until his murder. As the plot unfolds in fragments around you, you as an observer are empowered to explore deeper and draw pieces of information together, collecting clues as you explore the carefully curated rooms of the palace.

Helping with this reimaging are Kat Chan’s 80s styled costumes that the actors are wearing, with Claudia in a white power suit, Ophelia wearing a washed denim jacket and Hamlet in a polo T-shirt. Coupled with the audience’s costume of a black poncho cloak and black Batman-inspired mask, the costumes successfully aid in further immersing the audience into the world of the logging town and the mystery of the night.

Contrary to the usual importance of plot, the main event in this show is definitely the intricately detailed set design. Dale Ferguson, Marg Horwell and Matilda Woodroofe’s rooms were exquisite, throwing the audience into a whole new world where they were encouraged by the writing on walls, books in draws and envelopes marked confidential to dig deeper into the mystery of the Elsinore kingdom. The attention to detail certainly paid off because as an audience member it was incredibly thrilling to have read in strange documents hidden in the set later read out by actors at pivotal moments.

Assisting the building of the world was a brilliantly affective sound design by J. David Franzke and subtle, yet effective lighting design by Amelia Lever Davidson that both created an eerie atmosphere which gave me literal goosebumps at points. A highlight for me was little sound snippets like the game sounds in the arcade styled room and the scratchy static sound on old 80s styled televisions showing CCTV footage. All the little sounds coupled with the low-level composition played throughout the space and nuanced changes to lighting in each room truly transported the audience out of Melbourne for the full 90 minutes of the performance.

Similar to other immersive experiences such as ‘A Midnight Visit’, the audience of Because the Night is allowed to wonder freely around through the different rooms

By spreading the audience across several more intimate spaces, the company was able to reward the audience with moments of surreal closeness to the action while still maintaining COVID distancing requirements coupled with their strict ‘no touch’ policy. Even though you feel bold and adventurous as an audience member travelling through the labyrinth of rooms whichever way you like, you never feel like help is too far away with people to who are designated helpers at every corner and turn. Even the stage managers were integrated to fit the dramaturgy of the performance by being dressed in the signature black cloak and mask of a watcher.

In terms of accessibility, this performance is definitely not super accessible for all audiences as there is a lot of moving around, loud sounds and dimly lit areas. However, there are several clear areas to sit in most rooms, making it possible to still have an interesting experience if you do have to take a breather from the action of it all. The other thing worth noting is that the audience are required to wear marks, not the COVID kind but the masquerade/Batman type. This at first seemed impossible to manage with my glasses frames but even with glasses on the masks are big enough to still see clearly and not have it annoy you all performance.

Although I didn’t get to witness every actor in full flight due to the fragmented and sparse nature of immersive theatre performances, a standout performance from Tahlee Fereday in the role of Ophelia captured my attention for most of my time spent in Elsinore. Fereday’s ability to maintain the fourth wall, yet let the audience access her characters more intimate, private feelings through her nuanced facial expressions truly kept me invested in Ophelia’s journey throughout the work. At one point I found myself following her through narrow corridors of file boxes and into a small white room where she read passages of a diary to herself as if no one was around her. Assisting Fereday in delivering this moment were perfectly timed voice overs played through speakers in the small room and a punchy lighting change to red during a pivotal moment in the reading. The truly impressive part of it all is that the sound and lighting design throughout the entire show was so smoothly run that it had you questioning how they could possibly have pulled it all off.

With 37 rooms to explore and six different actors to follow throughout the space, Because the Night offers each audience member a unique experience that doesn’t disappoint.

Image Credit: Pia Johnson


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