The Devil You Know: A Horror Play
The Nottingham New Theatre
Greenside @ Infirmary Street
There is a dearth of truly good horror on display at the Fringe, and one of the reasons for this is that proper horror is difficult to do. Fear, terror and disgust are difficult depths to plumb in an often sweaty and noisy Fringe venue. But more often than not, the mitigating factor is that the craft of horror writing requires a deep understanding of it, as well as the ability to tell a story in a coherent enough manner to make the horror work.
In fact it's ironic that early in The Devil You Know, one of the characters makes an amusing quip about not dropping an audience straight into witchcraft without context, a nice little meta comment on something the play had just done. However the play never followed this up by remedying the problem, leaving the audience to flounder, bereft of a few choice details that might help make sense of the confusing guddle that followed.
The story revolves around four teenagers—two boys and two girls—who are making a film, or possibly a documentary. One of them wants to document the summoning of a spirit to turn one or more of them into a "proxy", some sort of familiar to "The Faceless Lady". This entity lives in the forest, and will apparently kill all of them unless a sacrifice is made. Thus one of them is possessed, who promptly vanishes, and the rest scramble to find her, or sometimes make plans to kill each other, or have a seance, and at one point dropped some acid; the order of which never quite makes sense. Interspersed between these scenes are occasional clips of camcorder footage projected on the back of the stage. All of which are far better shot, edited and manipulated than the rest of the production would suggest.
That's really one of the issues here. This is a play that wants to be too many things, and doesn't do any of them well enough, or originally enough. Particularly since the "Faceless Lady" is a barely disguised retread of the Internet-created Slender Man and the video segments highly reminiscent of the Marble Hornets web series which helped popularise the Slender Man mythos. In fact, it could be that the play was looking to say something about the 2014 real-life tragedy in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where two young girls brutally stabbed a third while trying to become "proxies" for Slender Man, but the lack of any such mention in the publicity materials suggest otherwise. Moreover, the lack of any sort of coherent message would negate it in any regard.
To further the problems, the four characters interact in a way that never once makes any of them feel like they would be friends in real life. Most of their dialogue consists of bickering, with one of them acting as some sort of leader, who is obsessed with the Faceless Lady, but from the outset clearly knows more than she's letting on. All of which was learned on some Internet forum, but why any of it is believed is never made clear, since it's all but impossible to gauge the age of the characters or their personalities beyond the most surface level. The tone also never quite decides if it's supposed to be serious or not, leading to some over-eager members of the audience chortling through the early scenes and giving the odd polite and uncertain chuckle later on.
That's not to say that there isn't any craft involved in this production (witchcraft notwithstanding). In fact, the projected pre-recorded footage, some occasionally interesting uses of lighting and audio and a neat little trick with the staging all point towards some real effort and thought that have gone into the project. It's a shame then that this same effort seems to have skipped the scriptwriting, the direction and the acting, as the actors spend much of the runtime talking over each other, repeating lines and jabbering at each other in conversations that go round in circles to the point of becoming genuinely dull. This, added to a nonlinear story structure, which is both unclear and for the most part unnecessary, simply makes the play feel like a confusing chore.
In fact, the person sitting next to me, actually began to look down at his lap in boredom around the halfway mark, only glancing up when a video would start playing. It's a pity and I dislike having to come down heavily on what is clearly a young company with a lot of enthusiasm and some clear talents and ingenuity in some areas; yet as it stands, this play is a derivative, and barely comprehensible mess.
Reviewer: Graeme Strachan