Malthouse Theatre’s Because the Night is impressive in many ways, but it’s only a first step in realising what immersive theatre can be, says Robert Reid
I walk from Flinders St Station to the Malthouse, because reminding yourself how to look at the world, how to see environments rather than just to navigate through them, is a good warm up for the kind of immersive experience Malthouse’s Because the Night promises. That walk takes you over the river from the busy city, through trees and older buildings, and then across a vast desert of blond crushed stone. Finally you walk through a rusted archway into a courtyard that is, in its way, like stepping back into 1990.
Because the Night is partly Malthouse’s response to the restrictions placed on live entertainment in the age of Covid. Artistic director Matthew Lutton and his team have transformed the Beckett and the Merlyn into a single giant immersive space that audiences can explore to their heart’s content, while a new adaptation of Hamlet is performed around them. It must feel like an enormous gamble for the company, but it’s an important step forward in what theatre in Australia can be and is apparently sold out – suggesting that there’s enough curiosity from a theatre audience about immersive performance to make it worth persevering with.
All the way here, I’ve been noticing scraps of paper sticky taped to poles. Each has a poem printed out on it, an act of guerrilla street art. It makes me smile – it’s nice to see people still claiming their streets for their art. It’s not terrific, but it’s not terrible. I notice it accumulates as I get closer to the Malthouse and begin to wonder if it’s part of the experience, the tendrils of the fictional world reaching out into the real one. I can imagine Hamlet or Ophelia writing poems and leaving them for the other to find.
There are more of them inside the venue, sticky-taped onto plant pots on the tables around the foyer. I wonder if they are part of the show, or if perhaps the poet is a very cheeky self-promoter. Checking out his Instagram after the show, I’m sure he’s just a poet hijacking the space. Part of me wants to think this is an even deeper layer of the experience, a rabbit hole that only some of us will find and fewer will follow. Maybe this website is fake: the photos certainly look like they could be stock images, maybe there’s an entire story world to find here. This reveals one of the problems that faces the depth of immersion I want: even I don’t have time to follow the rabbit hole all the way down. Though if it were signposted a little more clearly…
In the foyer, ivy climbs the central poles and a slightly sick glow from the orange and green florescent lighting casts a weird glow over everything. It feels like golden hour in a dense jungle setting. It’s the last hot day of the season, so the foyer has a humid, almost predatory feel.
There are three entrances to the space, and we enter in groups that I imagine are randomised. The hand sanitisers outside are branded with “Welcome to Elsinore” promotional material reminding us to stay safe, which is a nice touch. Not a huge amount is made of it, it’s just there.
I’ve already been on the Malthouse website so I’m prepped for the kind of experience on offer. We audience wear masks and capes throughout, to give us anonymity and encourage us to be more adventurous. They also have the effect of turning us each into silent performers, or maybe more like moving parts of the set. Watching a scene play out with silent masked others gives everything a judgmental undertone; we witness, analysing, empathising perhaps, but always separate.
It’s the simplest and, I suppose, least threatening, form of immersion, reducing the fourth wall to a few inches away from the actors’ faces. They play as if we are not here, as if they can’t see us, and that erasure makes us ghosts. We can pick up objects and interact with the set, and the environmental story-telling is good: the atmospheres created by each room are strong and feel complete. It would be helpful if signs led us towards items that reveal useful information, so we could find more story and less dressing. I pick up a phone and it’s dead, for example, rather finding being a dial tone or an operator.
I enter through the Royal Offices, where a discussion between Polonius (Syd Brisbane) and Claudia (Nicole Nabout) is already underway. I listen but my attention is much more drawn towards the environment. The corridors lead to other rooms, the newspaper article in Claudia’s hand. I don’t stay to hear how it resolves. I can hear shouting elsewhere in the space, and assume it’s the performance seen by those who entered through the other doors. The audience is given the option of staying with performers, following them through the space. Doing so would probably ground the experience in narrative, with the immersive space as very detailed set dressing. It pushes everything else this experience can offer into the background if you only follow the actors. I don’t see how many people stick with their actors or wander off to explore.
I find I drift from room to room. Not all doors open when I try them at first and it seems that more rooms and areas open throughout the set as the show progresses, which encourages explorers to double back and see what they may have missed. The design of each room is unique and detailed, though the layout might be a bit confusing. Rather than follow a logical floor plan of how a grand house might be laid out, the whole world of Elsinore seems to be tied up in an Escherian knot. Corridors connect grand ballrooms to tin shed clubs, dive bars connect to winter forests. The spatial narrative of this Elsinore is seen through the broken minds that inhabit it.
I pass by moments of the performance more than get caught up in it. I’ll walk past a room where other ghost audience have gathered, to see Gertrude (Jennifer Vuletic) and Polonius argue, I find Ophelia (Artemis Ioannides) cursing Hamlet’s name in her room, I stumble upon Hamlet (Keegan Joyce) in the gymnasium working out in a rage. Occasionally I am alone in a room, or a few other ghosts are there with me, doing their own thing, all exploring like tourists. In those moments, I want to find things I can dive into.
This Elsinore is not in Denmark, that much is clear. There are hints of a worker caste and a revolt brewing in their ranks, and of a dark spiritual tradition with its own holy symbols and books. I want to learn more about that world, but I don’t know how to find it. I find a long, dark corridor that invites me in, asking me to trust that it’s safe, but what I find at the end of that epic journey is pretty but without meaning.
Maybe I missed something crucial and obvious. That does happen to me. But as detailed as the world is, as atmospheric and evocative, it’s not clear how to get beyond that. I don’t feel directed to search, I don’t feel the pull to explore. There’s a whole world here, but I feel like I can only make my way to the surface of it. Maybe a second viewing might make it clearer; on my first encounter with it, I found it overwhelming. With so much to see, and no real attraction to the performances, I drifted towards the quiet rooms, my favorite of which saw me playing old school frogger on a battered arcade machine, which threatened to derail the rest of my experience.
In a world that’s all content, rule systems are necessary to create context. “Things I can do,” like play a computer game, or watch video on a screen, or rifle through a stack of notes, all give the audience a way to explore that is more than just “feel free to look around”. Even a museum-like engagement can be engrossing and tell a lot of the story, as the Star Wars diorama room displays. Sure, I was drawn in by the Star Wars toys (impressive collection) and the diorama too, because I’m kind of a nerd for miniature villages and the Myer windows, but as I was admiring it, I noticed the incredibly dark story it told.
As the experience nears its end, events start to occur around us. I’m close by when Polonius dies, although I’m not quite in the room when it happens, so I can’t be sure. I round the corner to hear Ophelia’s grief-stricken howling and see Hamlet flee the scene. The wake of audience he’s gathered by this point follows behind him and rather than stay to explore the scene, see the evidence of the moment I missed, I get dragged along with the Prince’s masked retinue.
I detach myself in one of the large rooms, this one built of corrugated iron, and let the other audience members run on like the courtiers following a king. Now would be an ideal time for an actor who is not part of the main cast to come over, sit next to me and start talking. A monologue for one person, ready to go when they see the opportunity, is where the magic lies in this form, pulling the focus from macro to micro and back again. Instead, I watch as another of the leads charges through the room trailing black-clad audience like a cape, and this time I follow. There’s a sense of being drawn towards a conclusion in the way the actors move, the direction and the haste – plus we just saw Laertes get the poison blade from Claudia, so we know “events are moving very quickly” toward the end.
It’s a smart idea to hang an experience like this off something like Hamlet. It gives us some license to explore when we’re comfortable enough with the story that, if we miss something, we’ll be able to pick it up when we get back to it. Because the Night isn’t exactly Hamlet as we know it and there are twists in its retelling that, again, hint at a much broader story without really letting us into it. The fantasy world that Because the Night implies almost demands wider exploration. The depth we want to exist beyond the 90 minutes could be contributed by artist responses to the work, fan fic, student responses. In short, let us play too.
Because the Night is by its nature a partial experience. You can only see so much in one viewing. The gamble is how many will feel the need to come back to see more. The length of the run – potentially a year – also gives the company the leeway to experiment with it. It’s official opening doesn’t mean the creatives can’t keep adding new things to find, new stories to uncover and even new performers to surprise us.
The ambition here is in the scope of the design. The challenge now is to make the experience more meaningful and the narrative more encompassing. In terms of atmosphere, world-building and immersion, what Malthouse has done is ground breaking: the scale of Because the Night shows the kind of thing that is possible with immersive design. It’s an important step forward, but it’s only a step. It’s still only a fraction of how deep this artform can go.
Because the Night, concept and direction by Matthew Lutton, text by Matthew Lutton, Kamara Bell-Wykes and Ra Chapman, set design construction Dale Ferguson, set design interiors by Marg Horwell, composition and sound design by David Franzke, lighting design by Amelia Lever-Davidson, costume design by Kat Chan. Performed by Nicole Nabout, Maria Theodorakis, Belinda McClory, Jennifer Vuletic, Khisraw Jones-Shukoor, Keegan Joyce, Ras-SamuelWelda’abzgi, Hervey Zielinski, Tahlee Fereday, Artemis Ionannides, Rodney Afif and Syd Brisbane. Bookings
If you have any questions about accessibility or require further information for your specific needs, please email email@example.com or call 03 9685 5111.
Wheelchair and physical access
The world of Because The Night has been designed with a minimum 85cm doorway width on all rooms, and is accessible for a wheelchair with a 64cm width. All rooms in the show can be accessed via flat floor doorways from at least one room entry. Entering from the Royal Office is not suitable for audiences that have difficulty ascending and descending a flight of stairs. All rooms in the show are connected and can be explored from any starting room.
There will be dedicated audio described performances through the season in collaboration with Description Victoria.
Auslan interpreted performances
There will be dedicated Auslan interpreted performances through the season in collaboration with Auslan Stage Left.
There will be a relaxed performance pack created in collaboration with A_tistic.