Above: The Masque of the Red Death
Edgar Allan Poe was an American contemporary of the Brontes. Like them he died young. And also like them, he was fascinated with the macabre and in love with gothic. The Masque of the Red Death, directed by Omar F Okai, takes us to a house presided over by amoral Prince Prospero. Plague – the red death – rages outside and nothing inside is quite what it seems as invited guests arrive. We could almost be Lockwood puzzling over what’s what when he first arrives at Wuthering Heights. The Fall of the House of Usher, better known because of the 1949 and 1979 films, is the story of an outsider arriving at a cursed house to rescue his beloved – Sleeping Beauty crossed with Ruddigore but nastier than either. The second play is directed by Maud Madlyn.
The Jack Studio Theatre is so full of atmospheric liquid carbon dioxide, aka stage smoke, that this could be a murky mysterious London peasouper as Anna Larkin, face painted to look menacingly sinister, darts about as the personification of The Red Death. There’s lovely work from Nell Hardy, who brings lithe jerkiness to Duchess Boleville. As Prince Prospero, Christinel Hogas dominates and is suitably cold and ruthless although he stumbles over his words more often than he should even allowing for press night nerves. The ending of this first piece is enjoyably dramatic with a hint of Don Giovanni as we recognise the inevitability of death.
Zachary Elliott-Hatton is terrific as Roderick in The Fall of the House of Usher. He is pale, twitchy and convincingly neurasthenic and he struggles to persuade the contrasting very normal Winthrop (James McClelland – pleasing performance) that he should go away and stop trying to interfere. Nell Hardy is, again, in fine form as Madeline. What I wouldn’t give to be able to come up from a back bend with that sort of control! Anna Larkin, Harriet Main and Cristinel Hogas are entertaining as the Brechtian trio of ancestors who pop in and out of their pictures and Bethan Maddocks makes a good job of representing real life and natural womanhood in both pieces.
I wish, however, that the sound balance were better. The music is too loud, especially at the beginning when it muffles the speaking of the actors. And there is a sense that both these pieces are slightly too wordy with everyone speaking too fast although the adaptation is into modern English and there’s no hint that the narrative origins are American.
Below: The Fall of the House of Usher