If you think the life of an orchestral string player is tough enough, at least when they’re performing they normally get a comfortable seat in a brightly lit hall under the gaze of a welcoming audience. Imagine if you had to spend your evening lugging your instrument down dimly lit corridors, in a rush to arrive on time for your cue, pursued by a pack of shadowy masked figures.
That’s exactly what the players of English National Opera’s orchestra are putting themselves through nightly in The Duchess of Malfi, a collaboration between ENO and pioneering ‘immersive’ theatre group Punchdrunk. As with the theatre company’s previous productions, a huge building – in this case a disused office complex in far-flung east London – is transformed into a labyrinth of astonishingly detailed rooms and stage settings, and audience members – all required to wear sinister white masks – are free to roam around at will, and to catch scenes when and where they can. This isn’t watch-it-from-start-to-finish opera – instead, you make your own journey and experience the work your own way.
Hence the pursuit of the string players. If someone with a violin case is dashing in a particular direction, they must be off to play in a scene, so you’d better follow them. At one stage I found myself in a large throng trailing a particularly nimble violinist who somehow managed to disappear into the shadows, leaving us to dissipate in all directions. A more successful pursuit of a cellist ended when he dashed into the gents loos – although I realised I might be missing a significant moment in the action, I thought it best to allow him his privacy.
At another magical moment, a 30-strong string orchestra suddenly seemed to materialise out of the darkness right next to me, to accompany a passionate love scene. A huddle of cello cases stood in the shadows behind them looking like creatures about to pounce – only to be whipped away at the end of the scene as the players dashed off for their next cue. But I couldn’t help feeling that in the opera’s culmination – which grouped the whole orchestra and audience together for the first time to witness the Duchess’s horrific execution – the players actually seemed rather relieved to be back in a traditional orchestral set-up – and to have lost their pursuers.