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a review of the A Midnight Visit immersive theatre experience, staged by Broad Encounters/Groundswell Productions

We were not to speak. The undertaker made that abundantly clear. As a reminder, black surgical masks were distributed, which most of the audience donned immediately. Together with the waivers we had signed and the gleaming coffins on display in the black-draped room, the atmosphere was pleasingly charged.

To the final movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, we were divided into groups and assigned a door. This choice was, however, a mere subdivision of SLEEP.

A Midnight Visit is an immersive theatrical production inspired by the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe. Developed by the innovators at Broad Encounters and Groundswell Productions, and directed by Danielle Harvey, it is an astonishing piece of work. From the initial conceit of entering a writer's dreaming mind (properly flagged as a little slice of death), it adumbrates fictional work and biographical detail in a series of stunning tableaux and ingenious installations, through which the audience wanders more or less at will.

An old furniture store on King Street has been repurposed with acres of velvet, rooms seemingly transferred whole from old churches and manor houses, hospital wards and flights of sheer, gothic fantasy—I particularly enjoyed the Dressing Room and the Balloon Hoax. The black half-masks co-opt the audience into the spectacle, which is by turns ghoulish, seductive and hilarious. Especially when the others joined us.

Grieving Widows and Actresses ring bells and take curtain calls, while Edgar and Virginia play out their tragedy with the aid of stranger entities, some of whom invite individual audience members to become more closely involved. While avoiding spoilers, I think I may single out the following for high praise.

 

In which martial harmony is disrupted (by coughin').

 

In which the nurse recommends complete bed rest.

 

In which the cat cannot be kept off the table (or out of the cellar).

 

In which there is laughter in the nursery (and upon every tongue).

 

In which the usher becomes the live act.

 

In which the Raven holds court, before admiring eyes.

 

The skill with which these vignettes are fused into a coherent theatrical experience, that still might differ for every participant, is remarkable. Part of it, obviously, depends upon what piques the individual's curiosity. Do they chose to follow the silent, lace-draped figure passing along the corridor, or follow the sound of ranting into an enclosed chamber? What about that thudding which seems to come from beneath the floor boards? The peep show presentation of some scenes dares the audience: are we here for an immersive experience or not? Such little transgressions are often rewarded with secrets, although these must sometimes be accessed on hands and knees.

But there is also a steady escalation of intensity of image and emotion - from drops of blood to an entire, ensanguined room - controlled by the move from downstairs to up and further, by what doors are opened and rooms revealed by the characters, initially to a select few. There are such contortions! Such whispering and serenades! Nothing feels rushed or—the primary danger at all such events—crowded. There is ample time to explore, to partake, before the characters again snare our attention and gently draw all towards a climax about which I can only, possibly say;

 

“That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”

“And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.”

 

Or possibly, death, where is thy sting?

Solidly constructed, superbly polished and drenched in style, I savoured every moment of this production. Aware I had only begun to plumb its depths, I was reluctant and yet, oddly relieved to be shepherded through the portal labelled WAKE. But, as this led to the on-site bar, even this offered a double meaning, and a chance to reflect and extend one's meditations. Veteran though I am of role-playing events and immersive theatre (on both sides of the intangible line), few have impressed me as much as this, or granted so much with which to dream.

 

 

A Midnight Visit runs till December 9, at 655 King Street, Newtown. Tickets are $45, available here.

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