Posts Tagged ‘Grand Guignol’

Review – Grand Guignol – Theater Royal Plymouth at Southwark Playhouse

October 29, 2014

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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Preview – Third Annual London Horror Festival – Etcetera Theatre (through October 31st)

October 23, 2013

Well! It’s midway through the third annual London Horror Festival, and I thought it was a good time to have a catchup with co-founder Stewart Pringle about this year’s event. We sat down at Assa Korean Restaurant for a pint and a chat.

LCS: So how did this festival get started?
SP: I did a Grand Guignol show with Tom at uni, then we decided to try to do one in London. When we got into the Courtyard Theatre, we had some spare studio space, so we saw about bringing in a few more companies. Next thing you know, we had a festival.

LCS: I went to a few shows the first year – for me, Halloween is the perfect time for scary theater. How big is the festival this year?
SP: We had twenty-five companies apply this year and accepted fifteen, including an opera company! We had to see if they were compatible with what we had available in terms of size and space and length of run. We like to have lots of short runs and give people an opportunity to try things out and be experimental.

LCS: The playgoers or the producers?
SP: Both, really. Our festival is aimed at people who aren’t really theater goers, but maybe fans of horror cinema or lit. We try to keep the tickets very affordable. And we’ve expanded out to families as well, with the Zombie Science lectures (supported by the Wellcome Trust, by the way). But it’s also a place for playwrights and theatre companies to try out new things, maybe a show that hasn’t been performed before, or branching out into a different format.

LCS: You do seem to be really devoted to new writing.
SP: Five or six of the shows we’re doing this year are new. And of course we’ve got the radio play competition, that pulls in people who haven’t even done plays before, or maybe never had their works staged, and it gives them a life online. It’s just sad, you have the Brentwood Prize (for new play writing) with 100 plays on the long list, and maybe 12 of them will be done all of the next year in London. We prioritize new writing and things that have never been staged before. We’re passionate about it.

LCS: So what do you think is going to be the most popular this year? I’m of course looking forward to getting my Cthulu fix next weekend.
SP: Well, House of Nostril was a sell-out, and was also very popular at the Edinburgh Fringe. Upcoming still is What Monsters Do. It’s based on Nicolas Vince’s book of short horror stories. It’s already nearly sold out.

LCS: Ooh, when’s that?
SP: The 25th – 27th of October. It’s showing the same nights as Call of Cthulu.

LCS (marks info in calendar): So what are next year’s plans?
SP: We’re going to continue the partnership with the Et Cetera – we’ve looked at bigger venues but the price is high and cost is what makes it accessible to smaller companies. And, of course, we’re going to continue to prioritize the staging of new works.

LCS: Good to hear. The last thing we need is another celebrity casting of some Shakespeare play.
SP: That’s a fact.

(The London Horror Festival continues at the Et Cetera theater in Camden – over the Oxford Arms, near the Camden Tube station – through October 31st, 2013.)

Mini-review – Grand Guignol “Summer of Terror” – Exeter Alternative Theate at London Horror Festival

October 22, 2013

Autumn has rolled into town, and along with fallen leaves and pumpkins, it’s time for the LONDON HORROR FESTIVAL! I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to catch an annual dose of frights, especially to see the now-out-of-fashion Grand Guignol plays. The “Summer of Terror” triple bill from Exeter Alternative Theater looked especially promising – two classics AND a new play, and a running time of one hour, plus it was in a pub so you could bring in drinks – basically, perfect – in and out and if it all got too scary, I knew I’d be able to hold out long enough for it to wrap up.

The plays had some common themes between them – rage, revenge, infidelity – that made for some interesting thoughts on the common threads of human motivations. Grand Guignol can be about mad scientists working in laboratories or the ghosts of serial killers, but what’s really terrifying is how the behavior of normal human beings can snap under certain kinds of pressure. In the first playlet, “The Last Kiss,” “he” (for so the male lead is called) has clearly gone round the bend some time before the curtain rose. “He” (Leigh Steadman) is blinded, but still has an overwhelming desire to his ex-lover, despite the fact that “she” (Carolyn Macey) blinded him. You know it’s not going to have a happy ending, but just how bleak is it going to go? I would have preferred Steadman to have dialed down “his” madness a bit, so we were sucked into the turnings of his mind, but I thought Macey was on as the dead-eyed girlfriend who couldn’t resist the call of curiosity – and maybe still had a fire burning for the man she injured in a fit of jealousy. And, to be clear, she was stunningly beautiful, exactly the kind of girl you could imagine “him” pining for and desperately trying to get back. Fin O’Leary’s landlady provided a lovely touch of normality to the whole business, which was over and done with before I’d made it to the bottom of my half of cider.

Next up was “Coals of Fire” (which, like “Last Kiss,” was written by Frederick Witney), a two-hander featuring a blind woman (“The Wife”) and her servant (“The Companion”). Taking place in an era in which divorce required proving fault, social services for the disabled were sketchy (as seen by the previous playlet), and unmarried women could be forced to have babies in “homes,” the play was fraught with the pressures both of personal lives and social norms. I found it extremely disturbing to see The Wife feel up The Companion to ascertain if her figure were good; but I also felt strongly the dilemma that any servant would have for being dismissed under questionable circumstances. The ending was brutal and apparently went against the original censor’s recommendations; but WHEW! It crackled! And while both characters seemed stiff at the start, I found myself relaxing into their conundrum quite naturally long before the end, which made for a much higher emotional impact.

Finally we got to the new play, “The Death of Love” (written by director Louis Ravensfield). It started with a highly improbably set up – a man and two women are stuck in a room together, tied to their chairs, and the man (Martin – Alan Smith) has to decide whom to shoot, his wife (Julia – Gabby Dexter) or his lover (Becky – Nicky Crew). It seemed rather ridiculous – I mean, really, how did NONE of them know how they got there (and this was never really resolved) – but, really, it was all just a trope to get us into the action. And it quickly grew very intense, as the women begged for their lives, cast aspersions on each other, and generally ratcheted up the pressure so much that even I was feeling Martin’s struggle. Where WAS it going to go? It ended with a twist and a bang, and, really, provided the biggest sizzle of the evening.

To be fair, there was a lot of clunkiness overall in this evening, but I still left feeling like I’d had a good time – neither too frightened nor in the least bored. Good job, Exeter Alternative Theater, and thanks for coming to London for a visit!

(This review is for a performance that took place at the Etcetera Theater in Camden on Sunday, October 19th, 2013. Final performances are tonight, October 21st, at 19:30 and 21:30. Do not order food unless you have at least a half hour to wait; the pub is VERY slow sserving.)