Poe: Macabre Resurrections

Rob Johnston, Richard Allden, Mike Carter, Jacob Hodgkinson and Nadine Hearity

Second Skin Theatre

St Mary's Old Church, Stoke Newington

(2011)

Review by Howard Loxton

This is a particularly appropriate location for this reworking of some of the dark tales of Edgar Allan Poe. His adoptive parents brought him to Britain in the 1810s and from 1817-20 he lived in Stoke Newington, going to school in Stoke Newington Church Street only a few yards from St Mary's Church where Poe: Macabre Resurrections is being performed and which he probably attended. He may even have sat in the same early nineteenth-century pews as the audience who come to see it, though they were probably more crowded for when the new church over the road was opened in 1858 there were 545 pew rents being paid plus 150 free sitting, many more than the audience it now accommodates.

Under the overall artistic direction of Andy McQuade, he and five other directors present specially commissioned treatments of five Poe's stories rethought for today, plus his best known poem The Raven incorporated in the framing device of a preacher who introduces the evening and guides the audience through the promenade performance. They have not simply transposed the stories to a modern setting, these are not literal transpositions but rethinking in the spirit of what is behind Poe's plots.

No great blade swings from above in Hodgkinson's version of The Pit and the Pendulum, directed by Samuel Miller, but the menace is all too real as we watch the beating up, interrogation and torture, by captors with American accents, of a prisoner, a Moslem who in his terror seems to be talking to his guardian angel. Though masked and balaclava-wearing men drag him in and raise the grating to uncover the church's vaults, the voices of them all are provided by one actor: startlingly good performance from Priyank Morjaria.

Rob Johnston's Premature Burial, directed by John Kathogan, which takes place outside in the graveyard, is also rooted in the Afghan and Iraq conflicts, though its message could apply to any war. Steve Brownlie plays an NCO delivering news of a soldier's death to his widow (Sarah Feathers). That is moving in itself but then the dead squaddy appears, a finely played by Michael Amariah, to ask unanswerable questions.

For The Cask of Amontillado, written by Richard Allden and directed by Yolanda Ferrato, the audience are huddled together to create the close confines of the tunnels of the story, dark except for flashes of torchlight, many of us unable to see anything of the action. Ingenious, but for me it didn't quite come off, despite some striking sound effects. Sarah Scott is smoothly menacing but I was not caught up in Owen Nolan's fate as Fortunato. The story is interrupted by the repositioning of the audience and both parts of the episode are perhaps too long.

In The Black Cat, directed by Andy McQuaide, Mike Carter has made the protagonist a jealous psychotic mother, intensely played by Mia Zara but she never quite made me see the cat she mutilates and kills despite her detailed mime.

The Masque of the Red Death, in Nadine Hearity's version directed by Hayley Byfield, is directly linked with economic crisis and social breakdown and suggests the planning of some kind of right-wing coup by a mogul and his daughter (Conrad Williams and Zane Lapsa). The detail is confusing but the staging provides a spectacular climax.

From that final horror the priest returns for his final confrontation, not with us but with his destiny in the shape of his Raven, spookily played by David Hugh. Stephen Connery Brown is throughout a smoothly suave Preacher, genial pastoral concern hiding his own torments and his spirit flask. He is aided, of course, because his role gives him direct contact with the audience as he stands in for Poe himself in sharing these stories with his congregation.

This is not a scary show in the "house of horror" sense; what is frightening is the way it looks at the horrors people perpetrate. It did not send a chill down my spine, but then the place was pretty chilly to start with. In a show that runs two and a half hours some of the treatments are overlong and they don't have the punch of the Middle Eastern stories, but it is imaginatively staged with valuable contributions from designer Nika Khitrova, sound designers Alexander Fedyushkin, Rory Taylor and Michael Cryne, lighting designers Sarah Cogan and Anna Sbokou. A huge team have been involved in putting this together and they have brought new ghosts to this old church.

Those of a nervous disposition may find it more frightening than I did. Despite overhead heating audiences should wrap up warm, and though the bar's red wine is warming wouldn't it have been a good idea to have mulled and serve it warm?

"Poe: Macabre Resurrections" runs at St Mary's Old Church until 4th December 2011