The Raven

Edgar Allan Poe, adapted by Simon James Collier

Okai Collier Company / Evcol Entertainment

Old Red Lion

From 18 October 2017 to 19 October 2017

Review by Howard Loxton

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Poe’s macabre imagination and the rhythm, multiple rhymes and sonorities of the verse make The Raven a powerful poem but it is not one that lends itself to easy dramatisation. It presents a single extended image rather than action. For this hour-long adaptation, writer / director Simon James Collier solves that by looking behind the facts the poem presents and inventing their back-story.

The night remembered in the poem is played out in the present. Dramatically launched with thunder rumbling outside in the darkness, we hear the mysterious rapping and watch the poem’s deliverer, mourning the “rare and radiant maiden” now-lost Leonore, encounter that ominous black raven.

Poe does not identify the speaker. Collier makes it the aristocratic Lady Elizabeth Woodruff and here she is alone in a stark but elegant setting. It presents only a pair of pedestals: one bears a bust of Pallas Athena, on which she sees the bird perching, the other the decanter of brandy that she has been freely imbibing.

It looks very beautiful under Ben Jacobs’s lovely lighting but things are far from tranquil in the mind of this Lady Elizabeth. How long has she been drinking? How real is the raven? Some raps on the door are certainly real for a manservant, Jameson (Michael Eriera), enters and is asked to replenish the decanter and later a doctor (Mitch Howell) arrives who refers to an incident that afternoon that presumably he was called to. Was it that incident that now preys on the mind of Elizabeth or is this something that goes back much earlier?

“Take your beak out of my heart,” Elizabeth appeals to the bird that haunts her, a raven that only she sees, and as guilt and grief overcome her we hear a tale of love and jealousy, of a boat capsizing.

Doctor and servant are written with a Victorian formality that the actors were not yet quite at ease with on the opening night and, in her long opening monologue, Sandra Veronica Stańczyk as Lady Elizabeth didn’t always command the house. Her sometimes-rushed phrasing reflected the character’s tensions but it countered clarity, especially when turning away from the audience. Later, sinking to the ground, overcome by emotion, she becomes a distraught woman who pulls at the heartstrings. I saw the play’s very first performance: actors need time to make a space their own and this isn’t easy when sharing it with a packed programme of other productions as in this London Horror Festival.

While retaining a nineteenth-century mix of elegance and menace, Simon James Collier has given the story an intriguingly contemporary twist but I wish he had kept more of Poe’s own resonant phrasing.

This production of The Raven will also run at the Etcetera Theatre 31 October to 5 November 2017