‘I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together in some struggle with the grim phantasm… fear!’ declares Roderick to his friend, and his audience, soon after our arrival at his decaying home, The House of Usher, through a small dark door. A tale of terror, entrapment and what happens to brothers and sisters if they don’t get out enough, the production is staged in promenade, so that rather than the stage/ seating demarcation we are familiar with, the audience is left to wander the set, moving towards and attempting to avoid collisions with the actors themselves. Little by little as pools of light illuminate the action, the set reveals itself through a dusty bookcase here, an ominous collection of empty skewed picture frames there.
The problem at first is that the scene is a little too familiar to be genuinely frightening: Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre imagery of dusty cobwebs and flickering candles in drafty halls has lost its bite by becoming the stuff of cliché and parody. What’s more, Director Anthony Lau’s project ‘to engage with sheer terror’ seems helped and hindered in equal measures by the demands it makes on its audience to move about the stage. At its best it keeps the audience constantly engaged and brings an uneasiness and proximity to the action which ups the pulse; at other moments, the need to keep scuttling out of the light like startled woodlice can break concentration and distract from the story unfolding. Sometimes we seem to be invisible, other times we are addressed, and in some incidents singled out for a light fondling: it’s a little like that nightmare of being on stage without quite knowing what your part is. The production surely takes its inspiration from Punchdrunk’s 2007 promenade adaptation of another Poe blood-chiller, The Masque of the Red Death, but having the pint-size New Theatre to deal with rather than the cavernous Battersea Old Town Hall inevitably has its challenges. Nevertheless, the exquisite set and wonderfully eerie piano music (Angus MacCrae) go a long way to transforming the place and an element of claustrophobia is appropriate in which the terrors of enclosure are a dominant theme.
The great strength of the production is the psychological momentum it gathers thanks to a storming performance from its three actors: Tom Warren’s gaunt and sonorous Roderick is perfectly matched by the doll like ethereality of Georgia Goldsack’s Madeleine, with Chloe Keedy’s Elizabeth providing a suitably stern presence to narrate the tale. The terror, both of Poe’s story and of this production, comes from a sense of unnameable fears and psychological demons which never quite show their face. It’s perhaps not only the short sharp shocks but the sense of something dark and unresolved which had such a hold on its audience that an awed hush presided long after we had left the auditorium.