Review – Grand Guignol – Theater Royal Plymouth at Southwark Playhouse

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Grand Guignol at the Southwark Playhouse – or, rather, I thought I knew what to expect … a series of short and terrifying/bloody plays, perhaps all from the original plays of the Grand Guignol, or perhaps all or some new but “in the style.”

What, you say you are unfamiliar with the Grand Guignol Theater (perhaps only knowing it as a a euphemism for the bloody stage predecessor of the slasher flick)? Then this play may be perfect for you, because what it really is is a recreation of the theater at the time, a sort of homage slash farce featuring shocking (but ironic) overacting, buckets of body parts (laying about the stage like laundry), and delicious pocket run-throughs of such classics as “A Crime in the Madhouse” and “The System.” You say you’re unfamiliar with them? Well, it’s not surprising: André de Lorde (depicted on stage by Jonathan Broadbent) wrote over 150 plays, but very few of them have been translated into English. Yet somehow each horrible play we see seems to exist in a reality of pure horror that exists outside of the normal bounds of mere storytelling and into the world of the mythic … a place inhabited by writers such as Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. This blending of metafictional reality and historical inspiration seems to me to support the choice to perform this as a farce, letting us step back into and then away from the “reality” of what’s going on. We are watching a play about a theater, with actors playing actors who had roles in the plays written by … you see what I mean? But it all starts out with a wink, and so we accept that it’s a bit of a joke, but once we’ve taken that step, then we come a little closer to believing the falseness on stage (I have to say having the ceiling swaying over head about did me in) and then, when the “reality” of the play – that there are real murders going on and genuine madness in the cast – starts to creep into the story, then suddenly we no longer know if we are watching a play or an actual murder. And the walls start spurting blood and the actors are dying and IT’S ALL JUST TOO SCARY!!! and then it’s bows. Wow! What a trick!

What’s amazing about this play, in retrospect, is how close it seems to have stuck to historical truth: psychologist Alfred Binet (Matthew Pearson) was de Lorde’s real life collaborator; Poe (one of the roles played by Andy Williams) was an inspiration for the Guignol plays, if not necessarily a spectral presence threatening de Lorde with harm if he didn’t do as instructed; and Paula Maxa (Emily Raymond) was the most murdered actress in Paris. I suspect that all of the plays that we were given tiny snippets of were actually based on real works of de Lorde’s; it all adds verisimilitude to the actual plot, which involves a Jack the Ripper style murderer (who could it be?) and Binet’s search for the source of de Lorde’s inspiration. Meanwhile, jokes are thrown in about the difficulties of working with audiences, the fickleness of actors, and how most critics deserve the fate of de Lorde’s fictional victims: given that I was there on press night, these jokes were met with gales of laughter.

As it turns out, even switching the comedy with horror is a technique lifted from the original Grand Guignol: I think it’s that the laughs put us into a heightened emotional state and somehow more receptive to revulsion (as a character we have begun to sympathize with is actually cruelly murdered on the stage). This play is pretty much perfectly written and performed in campy “turn the volume to eleven” glory; I can’t imagine a more perfect Halloween play or a more brilliant celebration of the infamous accomplishments of The Grand Guignol.

(This review is for a performance that took place on October 27, 2014: it continues through November 22nd. Don’t hesitate to go because Halloween is over: if you’ve got any taste for farce or passion for theatrical history, it’s a must see, and really so well acted!)

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