Melody Maker | Feature | 31 January 1987 | Photo: Daniel Faoro
THEATRE OF HURT
"With each spectacle we put on, we are playing a serious game. Unless we are determined to follow our principles wherever they may lead us, we do not feel that the game is worth playing."
Antonin Artaud, actor, poet and founder of the Theatre of Cruelty
"If Artaud were alive today, he'd be in a band. He'd be doing what we are doing."
Mark Ellis, actor, poet and vocalist with Masque
The central purpose of the Theatre of Cruelty is an exploration of brutality, shocking the system and exorcising latent violence and eroticism, and so acting as a liberating agent. Its influence upon Masque is obvious to anyone who has witnessed the band's live show – an aural and visual attack with Mark Ellis, robed in black, creeping about the stage on his long shanks, pointing toes and curling fingers, contorting his body into myriad angular formations.
Mark is assisted by two masked actors, whose movements culminate in the sacrifice of the frontman. His lyrics are pronounced with painful precision and set against a score shaped by his musical partners Pat and Adam. For the greater part, it is a cheerless assault, a funereal bass throb and the vicious tingle of feedback loaded guitar combining with the tap-tap of a drum machine. Masque's ritualistic rhythms occasionally degenerate into a buzz of noise. Once in a while, a wind instrument brings light relief.
"It's more of a complete sound than a series of structured songs with hook lines and choruses," explains Mark. "The whole thing is meant to be a feeling. I think a lot of people now buy records because they associate with the feel of a band – the Cocteau Twins, for example. When they were accused of not being interesting live, they argued that they were musicans, not actors. I admire that, though of course we're completely the opposite, using movement and mime."
Without the theatrics, without the character created by Mark, it would be possible, perhaps even necessary, to dismiss Masque as another grotesque and pointless doomy band. But their musical torment is the perfect provider of an atmosphere which is the source of life for the despicable creature at the centre of the scheme.
"The skinny ballerina is very much an acting exercise," says Mark. "It's not done for gimmick. I obviously make quite a statement by the make-up and clothes that I wear, but when I am out of the dressing room it all disappears. Offstage, the creature doesn't exist. If you like, I can't help but say it, it's a Ziggy Stardust."
It's no surprise to learn that Mark trained at a London drama academy, with the intention of becoming a classical actor and the hope of working with something like the Royal Shakespeare Company. His slide across to music came from a recognition that it is the most accessible, immediate and popular form of artistic expression around today. Former colleagues think he just wants to be a pop star.
"The theatre has a lot of snobbery attached to it and most of my friends thought I was neglecting the acting profession. But Masque seemed to be the most appropriate way to put across my ideas. I'm simply working on my terms. That's why most of the lyrics are a parody of the theatre or are put in a dramatic way. It's my style, how I perecive things.
"I'd like to cater for both types of audience and pull them together. Remember the Sid Vicious video of 'My Way', when he's playing to a bunch of toffs? To perform for a mixed crowd of West End play-goers and spiky tops would be the height of what Masque are trying to achieve."