A suitably warm and positive introduction to this double bill of theatrical adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories by the Jester (Anna Larkin) entices the audience well enough. But it’s easy to get the impression that things were going to get darker, perhaps very quickly indeed. And while some aspects of The Masque of the Red Death were predictable, there were enough plot twists to maintain interest. It begins as very much a ‘good versus evil’ story, with mention of the godly religious values one character holds and a subservience to the ‘Prince of Darkness’ by another. But by the end, things have become more nuanced than good meaning very, very good and bad meaning horrid.
The balance between the background music and the spoken word was excellent. This production was big on costumes but had a sparse set. Far too much theatrical fog was used, to the point where it was frankly difficult to see anything even in this studio space. At one point I sat there thinking, “Radio play, anyone?” But the dialogue proceeds at a reasonably brisk pace, which I found pleasing. Given the Gothic fiction that Poe is renowned for, this could easily have been a deliberately eerie show where people would speak in low tones and very s-l-o-w-l-y, to create a sense of the macabre.
Not here. The setting has a lot to do with the flow of the show. Prince Prospero (Cristinel Hogas) presides over an unspecified kingdom in which half the population has succumbed to something called the Red Death. Naturally, I decline to elaborate further on the Red Death in a review. This was, as Poe’s short story puts it, “a happy and beautiful masquerade” in which the great and the good were invited to the prince’s residence. For a while, with the sparkling music and the stunningly choreographed movements, this could pass for an adaptation of the early scenes of The Great Gatsby.
The accompanying music, thankfully, was used to portray this bustling social occasion, rather than being the over-emotional music that swells melodramatically. The play seemed to me quite moralistic, depicting the bringing down of a pompous figure of authority: pride indeed comes before a fall.
I’ve no idea why Bristol (Bethan Maddocks) is called Bristol in this adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher. No such character appears in Poe’s original, it appears to be borrowed from the 1960 motion picture of the same name, as does the character of Philip Winthrop (James McClelland). Roderick Usher (Zachary Elliott-Hatton) claims an acute sensitivity to rising noise levels, an assertion proven false when he himself raises his voice at Winthrop. That isn’t the only oddity: a trio, sometimes comparable to a Greek chorus, other times like the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, chants and narrates away at various points.
The two plays, though presented separately with an interval dividing them, turn out to be linked, and not just because they are of the same genre. The events of the first play have influenced the events of the second, some generations later. It’s a melancholic ending – it’s not called The Fall of the House of Usher for nothing – which seemed to put a damper on the curtain call applause. That’s not a negative point, for once because in this case, it demonstrates that the production has achieved what it set out to, and the audience responded accordingly.
I wouldn’t call this double bill particularly spine-tingling or frightening: it’s a tad depressing if I’m honest. For the most part, though, it’s enjoyable escapism into another world altogether. Performed by a cast pulsating with enthusiasm, this is an attention-grabbing and highly riveting production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Masque of the Red Death
adapted by Simon James Collier
directed by Omar F. Okai
In his remote and fortified abbey, the notorious Prince Prospero and a handful of selected cronies have taken refuge to wait out the end of the Red Death, a gruesome plague which has swept over the land. But as the revelry continues a mysterious figure appears, and the Prince is forced to confront his own mortality.
The Fall of the House of Usher
adapted by Adam Dechanel
directed by Maud Madlyn
Those that enter the House of Usher never leave.
One man, determined to rescue his captive bride-to-be, is pitted against the centuries old curse cast upon the house. Can he rescue his love before it’s too late?
From the twice nominated ‘Empty Space…Peter Brook Award’ Okai Collier Company comes this haunting double-bill from the master of gothic story-telling: Edgar Allan Poe.
Founded in 1994 by Artistic Director Omar F. Okai and Writer/Producer/Director Simon James Collier, the award-winning Okai Collier Company and its subsidiaries has over 100 productions to its credit and works towards breaking down contemporary social barriers and encouraging new talent by developing a range of projects.
Edgar Allan Poe Double Feature
Presented by The Okai Collier Company
Tues 6 June to Sat 24 June 2017 at 7.45pm