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The Pit and the Pendulum at Omnibus Theatre | Review

The Pit and the Pendulum - Photo by Richard Budd
The Pit and the Pendulum – Photo by Richard Budd

Before you enter the auditorium at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham to see The Pit And The Pendulum, you’re handed wireless headphones and briefed on how to use them, for the piece is being staged in binaural sound (more of that later).

When we enter the theatre, a young woman in a hijab is kneeling, looking at some paper on the floor and there is Arabic music playing through the headphones. She gets up and starts talking to the audience and to the voice of Edgar Allen Poe with whom she has a dialogue. Behind her on a screen are fuzzy, indistinct pictures of events in what looks like somewhere in the middle east. It turns out to be in Tehran as the un-named woman is a political prisoner in that city. She continues to have dialogue with Poe who quotes from “The Pit & Pendulum”. After some banter with the author and some odd references to “Star Wars”, she tells the author to shut up and the rest of the play is a monologue about the terrible situation she finds herself in. At times she seems to be going mad and cradles an imaginary baby and we’re never quite sure if this is an actual situation caused by her being tortured or it’s all in her head. At the end, in a provocative gesture, the woman removes her hijab and lets down her hair. She’s free at last – but is she?

I have to admit that the play confused me quite a bit. It’s billed as “Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit And The Pendulum” but as it says in the programme “with the use of some of his language, but beyond that, this is a new play”. My confusion comes as to why they needed the device of the Poe play and his voice and writings. I know that the original was about torture and there are echoes of it here but was it really necessary. The play aims to make a political point about the situation Muslim women find themselves in today and in the main, makes it very powerfully so why confuse the issue both in the title and the addition of Poe’s voice and words. Anyone seeing the title without researching the content, would get quite a surprise when actually saw the play.

Afsaneh Dehrouyeh who plays the un-named woman is superb and was very much part of the collaborative process with writer/director Christopher York. Dehrouyeh makes us feel for the character and the terrible situation she faces and once Poe disappears, she comes into her own. She’s funny with a sharp, bright wit but is also very poignant at times, especially when holding her imaginary baby.

As for the binaural sound, this was a big disappointment. To quote Wikipedia “Binaural recording is a method of recording sound that uses two microphones, arranged with the intent to create a 3-D stereo sound sensation for the listener of actually being in the room with the performers or instruments”. I’ve had some experience of this method of recording sound and have listened to quite a few binaural recordings and the “round your head” effects can be amazing. However, apart from some women speaking at the end who sounded as if they were behind you, the results were disappointing and didn’t justify wearing the quite uncomfortable headphones for an hour.

I think part of the problem in the disappointment that I and some people I spoke to afterwards felt, was that the piece had been marketed as something it wasn’t. The Omnibus website states: An exploration of sensory deprivation and isolation in a near pitch black room this promises to be a fully immersive experience like no other using AV projection and wireless headphones”. Well, I certainly didn’t feel any sensory deprivation or isolation and the room wasn’t near pitch black – in fact, some of the excellent lighting was quite bright. There’s a danger these days of over-hyping creative work and I think this is the case here. Once again to quote the programme regarding this Creation Theatre production “Their shows are anarchic, unexpected, lively, quirky, fast and definitely not like any version you’ve seen before”. That certainly was the case and more for their wonderfully innovative production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that took place around the streets of Clapham a couple of years ago but can’t be applied to their current production.

I was really looking forward to being shaken out of my comfort zone by a modern adaptation of Poe’s gothic horror story brought up to date and given a modern twist but I left the theatre feeling that a chance to make a bold political and important statement had been somewhat diluted by using the Poe story as a staging device.

3 Star Review

Review by Alan Fitter

Iconic horror author Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale of political imprisonment and sensory deprivation is re-imagined in this immersive adaptation, using innovative audio-visual design and wireless headphones.

If any other person is in here
I am stretching my arms out now
So be warned
I have incredibly sharp nails…

A political prisoner wakes in a pitch-black cell, unable to see what terror hides in the darkness. As tension and fear escalate, the chances of survival grow slim.
Drawing inspiration from current stories from the Middle East, this contemporary adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic combines politics, feminism and claustrophobia. An exploration of sensory deprivation and isolation in a near pitch black room, this production promises to be a fully immersive experience using AV projection and wireless headphones.

Creative Team:
Presented by Creation Theatre Company
Adapted and directed by: Christopher York
Sound Designer: Matt Eaton
Video Designer: Eva Auster
Cast: Afsaneh Dehrouyeh

Omnibus Theatre, 1 Clapham Common Northside, London, SW4 0LH.
Box Office: Tel: 020 7498 0544
www.omnibus-clapham.org

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