Update 03/09/2021: Because the Night has been cancelled due to the ongoing outbreak in Melbourne. In a statement on social media, Malthouse Theatre said: "It is with a heavy heart that we are closing the door to Because the Night. Despite every attempt to reopen the show, we have been forced to close the season due to government restrictions. We are saddened that ticket holders for the remaining performances will not be able to experience the world of Elsinore." If you would like to support the theatre, you can do so by making a tax deductible donation.
There’s been a lot of hype about Because the Night, Malthouse Theatre’s new production where the audience can freely explore an immersive set while the cast perform around them. “Immersive” really is the word here, and for once the oft overused term doesn’t feel like a gimmick – nor does the intensely detailed open set undermine the integrity of the production. Because the Night is undeniably a work of theatre, but one that approaches the art with a bolt of inspiration that will attract new audiences to the discipline.
It’s apparent from the get go that Because the Night is unlike any production Australian audiences have seen before. The audience are split into three groups, each entering the performance from a different location. Ushers provide each person with a dark robe and Donnie Darko-style black rabbit mask to cover their face – apart from serving to differentiate audience from cast, the costume immediately puts visitors in the right headspace; goodbye Melbourne, hello Elsinore.
If you’ve seen Melbourne’s 2019 season of A Midnight Visit or even been lucky enough to attend Punch Drunk’s Sleep No More in New York, you’ll get the drill. The cast of six – which when we attended was Keegan Joyce (Hamlet), Nicole Nabout (Claudia), Syd Brisbane (Polonius), Ras-Samuel Welda’abzgi (Laertes), Jen Vuletic (Gertrude) and Artemis Ioannides (Ophelia) – are oblivious to the audience as they perform the loosely Hamlet-based story across the winding, labyrinthine set of Elsinore, a 1980s logging town.
Malthouse is upfront that there’s no one way to experience Because the Night. Follow a single actor if you like, switch between them or go off and explore the world and see what happens along the way. By design this means you’re never going to see the full story in one performance – even if you go into the show with a gameplan, you’re likely to be blown off course by an interesting prop or the sound of dialogue from afar. In fact, you can quite easily follow the action by following the voices (the audience, per a typical theatre show, are silent).
The cast act as a singular entity moving throughout the space; while we as the audience are only ever seeing a fragment of the story, there’s a synergy between scenes that becomes more and more apparent as you move towards the show’s culmination. Which brings us to another point: Because the Night isn’t word-for-word Shakespeare (the bard never said “fuck” quite this much), but a general understanding of the story is helpful to have if you want to follow across the fragmented performance.
The madness of Hamlet is potently rendered by Joyce, who channels a constant simmering rage that threatens to break free at any moment. It does, of course, and confrontations between him and Nabout’s Claudia are some of the most gripping scenes in Because the Night; it feels genuinely uncomfortable to have no fourth wall between you and them as they verbally spar. Nabout is appropriately wily for a gender-swapped King Claudius but also manages to imbue a strange air of humanity to the character; you don’t outright hate her as a villain, and her relationship with Gertrude feels gentle and genuine. Welda’abzgi as Laertes is determined and forceful, until he’s amusingly drunk and singing, in a moment of self-awareness, Patti Smith’s ‘Because the Night’ on tree stumps.
A recurring theme throughout Because the Night is the idea that nature is a living force unto itself, and both the set (Dale Ferguson, Marg Horwell and Matilda Woodroofe) and sound (J. David Franzke) design succeed in that endeavour. The level of detail created in the many, many rooms of Elsinore is impossible to fully appreciate in a single performance. From the arcade to the crypt, the bedrooms (plural) to the bunker, the set feels entirely fleshed out and alive. Apart from the obvious rooms (in which the majority of scenes are delivered) there are countless hidden areas and hidey holes to uncover, while other spaces change or become more apparent throughout the show. The soundscape (as well as Amelia Lever-Davidson’s lighting design) serves to amplify the uneasy current reverberating throughout. It confirms the set’s air of foreboding while also physically conjuring witchcraft and prophecy; we have well and truly entered the Red Room.
For anyone who hates loose ends, Because the Night practically commands a second viewing. There are a few secrets to the set we weren’t able to unravel (what’s up with all the pigs? Who are the Crosscutters?) and a whole other side to the story to see. Eerie, compelling and elaborately designed, Because the Night might just be Melbourne’s must-see theatre experience this year.