The Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter, adapted by Byrony Lavery
Northern Stage, Newcastle
(2008)

Production photo

A projected image of Lindisfarne Castle greets the audience as they enter Stage 2 at Northern Stage. As the lights fade, the image disappears and the stage picture is of a group of four around a grand piano on which lies a body with a huge sword across its chest. Beautifully lit by Malcolm Rippeth, this very painterly image is (for me, at any rate) reminiscent of Caravaggio's Judith Beheading Holofernes. A foretaste of things to come, for Neil Murray's production of Bryony Lavery's version of Angela Carter's reworking of the Bluebeard fairy tale is extremely visual.

It is, indeed, a feast for the eyes, and I imagine that the technical rehearsal must have gone on for many, many hours!

A seventeen year old girl, something of a musical prodigy, becomes the fourth wife of a middle-aged aristocrat and travels to his castle which is surrounded by sea except at low tide. On their wedding night he is called away, supposedly to travel to New York for an urgent meeting with his "man of business". He leaves the keys in her possession, giving her free run of the entire castle except for one room which she must not enter. She does, of course, and discovers the bodies of his previous wives, who, covered with blood, speak to her. He returns and, in his disappointment, announces she must be beheaded....

Film is used to show the train journey made by The Girl and her new husband The Marquis and to convey the atmosphere of the sea-girt castle. Sometimes it is projected onto the back of the set but sometimes onto a white curtain hanging mid-stage which is moved, sometimes in full light either by a character of a black-clad member of the stage crew.

There is, indeed, a lot of this kind of almost Brechtian alienation in this production: we see furniture being moved into position slowly and deliberately, even while a scene is progressing, and at times the projected image falls onto the characters as well as the back wall (and that surely is a deliberate choice, for it could so easily have been avoided). There is symbolism, too: the dark furniture is contrasted with the whiteness of the profusion of long-stemmed white lilies which decorate the stage, sometimes one in a vase, sometimes a whole bunch. The chastity references are obvious, and, indeed, we actually see the Girl being deflowered.

The production contains, as a notice in the foyer warns us, full male and female nudity and "scenes of a sexual nature". But again a distancing mechanism comes into play and the scenes of naked lovemaking (one on the grand piano) are carefully choreographed (by Liv Lorent of balletLORENT) so that they become a dance in themselves, thus forcing us to take a step back from reality.

The whole thing is beautifully done. Director Murray is also the designer and it shows. The whole piece is a visual treat.

But that is not to say that the performances are of no account. The cast of six merge their performances with the design, managing a delicate balancing act between natural playing and the visual, between reality and Carter's poetic language which Lavery has retained in full. For all their fairy tale origins, the characters are real, breathing human beings, not a story-teller's puppets

It would have been so easy to emphasise the gothic, to wallow in the unbridled sexuality, to become, in short, melodramatic, but by making us take a step back, even though our sympathies are engaged (even, to some extent, for the Marquis), this production highlights Carter's feminist message without being at all "in yer face" about it.

It runs at Northern Stage until 11th October. Don't miss it!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan