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Review of Hellscreen at VAULT Arts Festival

HellscreenWhat is art and how far should an artist go in the pursuit of it? These are two of the intriguing questions that are raised in “Hellscreen” part of the Vaults Arts Festival, under Waterloo Station.

Frank Holt (Jonny Woo) is a disenchanted artist who wants notoriety and feels his art is not receiving the recognition it deserves. His last foray into rocking the art world – producing images of celebrities using faecal material – failed to work and was dismissed by the critics. Now, he spends his days with his daughter Amy (Vanessa Schofield) – a young girl with a very positive outlook on life – playing games he uses to show her that, despite all her optimism, the world is really very negative and dark. Into their lives comes art impresario Katherine Bowker (Suzette Llewellyn) who has a bold plan to re-invigorate Frank’s career. Her idea is for Frank to focus on the negative, take the worst physical excesses of the modern world and recreate them for the YouTube viewing public. Katherine knows the art audience and very quickly Frank is hailed as an artistic genius, with art critics falling over themselves to praise him, and the public volunteering to be involved in his re-creations – no matter how extreme – until Frank finally takes things to the extreme and produces his ultimate piece of art.

Based on an old Japanese horror story, “Hellscreen” is such an interesting production. Aside from everything else, it really makes the audience think about themselves and their understanding of art. Director Rachel Parish has used her vault to great effect. The audience enters via a big box with plastic curtains to see a long raised stage where the production’s smiling chorus (Andrea Ling, Nick Gilbert, Julian Moore-Cook and Louise Skaaning) pass out stools, reacting to what sounded to me like animal noises with an almost euphoric sigh. Once seated, it is impossible not to get involved with the story building around you. Using highly effective lighting, video and music, the performance envelops and surrounds the audience with whom the ‘chorus’ directly at times interact – I played a game of invisible chess with one of them – and who are acknowledged by all of the characters as the voyeuristic consumers of media that we are. As Frank goes down the road of re-creation, starting with a disturbing story about a drunk and a dog, the audience travel with him willingly if not necessarily comfortably.

Turning to the two main characters. In theory, Frank should be easy to understand. He is an artist and therefore not necessarily governed by the same rules as ‘normal’ people but, how much of what he does is about pushing the boundaries of artistic creation, and how much is the need for recognition and approbation from art critics? I suppose the most intriguing character is Katherine. Skillfully separating father and daughter to ensure Frank produces darker and darker work, you can’t help but wonder what motivates her. Money, power or a genuine desire to explore the limits of art? I have my own theories about both Frank and Katherine and, thanks to the wonderful writing, staging and acting, I bet everyone seeing “Hellscreen” will too, though I’m not sure we would all agree.

A few months ago a friend and I were discussing art. He believed that there were about 6 people in the world that were the ‘power brokers’ who decided what was and what was not ‘Art’. At the time, I didn’t buy into this belief – I thought he just wanted to escape from Tate Modern – but, having seen “Hellscreen”, I can easily imagine someone like Katherine – tall stately and completely in control of everything around her – manipulating the art consuming public to follow her vision of what is in. In the end “Hellscreen” is uncomfortable viewing due to its totally immersive nature – it is a piece of art in its own right that challenges our own perception of artistic integrity and how far we, the art supporting audience – of whom the Vaults Festival is full – are prepared to go to be entertained
4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Firehouse Creative Productions and Double Barrel Productions present HELLSCREEN by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Rachel Parish
What were you born to do? Who could you be if you lived without limitation? And what would you do if you had the opportunity to find out, once and for all?
A sensual, exciting and terrifying production fusing film, music, immersive design and theatre. Inspired by a classic Japanese horror story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, set in the contemporary London art world, and featuring film director Susan Luciani’s live action film sequences and animation, Hellscreen follows an artist, his daughter, and a collector on their descent into hellish greed and obsession.
Starring performance artist Jonny Woo and pulling from true stories of lust and intrigue, Hellscreen is a sexy, fun and truly terrifying portrayal of the highs and lows of the artist’s drive to create.

Supported by Arts Council England & Colledge AV.
Cast & Creative Team:
Director Rachel Parish
Designer Ana Ines Jabares Pita
Film Susan Luciani
Lighting Natasha Chivers
Composer Joe Hastings
Visual Effects Supervisor Lindsay McFarlane
Producer Hannah Smith for Firehouse Creative Productions
Associate Producer Rosalind Wynn
Cast includes: Jonny Woo, Suzette Llewelyn, Vanessa Schofield, Andrea Ling
Image credit: Wahntraum

Sunday 1st March 2015


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