London Horror Festival
Threedumb Theatre’s “live film” of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat was the best thing I saw during lockdown: a superbly inventive way of presenting a theatrical story under the strictest social distancing that left most Zoom Plays in the shade. The company now return with four Poe stories – an excited prospect but I had to ask whether a return to conventional staging would be as effective?
The short answer is Yes. In Stephen Smith, the production is led by a director/performer of remarkable skill and versatility who tunes into Poe’s gothic melodrama like he was born to do it. One Man Poe is a near-perfect synergy of source material and actor, and if theatrical horror is your thing, you are guaranteed an absolutely gripping two hours of psychological battering.
First up is The Tell-Tale Heart. A straight-jacketed man insists he’s not mad – he just has extremely acute senses. He’s got it in for an old man with a frightening eye, and his dedication to ridding himself of this blameless individual tests his ingenuity to its limits. In this opening piece, Smith establishes his credentials as an artisan of intensity, coercing the audience into identifying with his character’s distorted perspective, and compelling us to join him on his insane journey.
After an on-set transformation (accompanied by atmospheric music from Joseph Furey) Smith emerges as a dirty and bedraggled victim of the Spanish Inquisition in The Pit and the Pendulum. This tale of one man’s desperate fight for survival in the face of fiendish torture is possibly the most viscerally horrifying of the collection. On the empty stage, Smith brilliantly conjures the features of the diabolical chamber with its deadly descending pendulum and gaping chasm of terror. And that’s before we get to the rats. “They writhed upon my throat; their cold lips sought my own…” Poe had a genius for nailing both the physical and psychological elements of terror, and the words of the text are projected onto the back of the stage at the same time as Smith fills them with ghastly life.
After the interval comes The Black Cat. While the live film version of this story excelled in exploiting the potential of that medium, here Smith re-imagines it as pure theatre. The protagonist this time is a bit of a cockney chancer, with slicked-back hair and an attitude of entitlement. We first meet him as an animal-lover with a house full of pets, but soon a fondness for alcohol leads to a sickening change in his demeanour.
Central to The Black Cat’s narrative is Poe’s examination of “the spirit of perverseness… this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself – to offer violence to its own nature – to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only…” Smith delivers these disturbing observations seated at the front of the stage, confiding in us in a confession that is both horrifyingly bleak and powerfully moving.
For the fourth and final portion of the production, Smith transforms himself into a stooped old man – complete with deformed eye in a nice nod to the victim of The Tell-Tale Heart. In this guise, he performs The Raven, Poe’s poem about grief and longing. It’s a sensitive and nuanced reading of the verse: Smith knows when to let the poetic rhythm take the lead, but also has the courage to stop the piece in its tracks when he wants to create room for the narrative beats to resonate. As the story progresses from amusement to perplexion and ultimately despair, Smith’s brilliantly physicalised protagonist inhabits the verse with horrifying authenticity.
I’m wary of over-praising this production, but I feel any niggles would be simply me attempting to find fault for the sake of it. So, I’ll simply end by saying that at several points I became aware that my lungs had ceased functioning, so caught up was I by Poe’s tales and Smith’s telling of them. My body was telling me I dare not inhale lest I broke the spell that was being cast over me. This show quite literally took my breath away.
Written by: Edgar Allan Poe
Directed by: Stephen Smith
Produced by: Threedumb Theatre
The show is now also available to watch on-demand until 13 November. More information via the below link.