Telling stories with imagination.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Metta likes... Horror

In all honesty, I don’t think that we’ll be getting out the rubber gloves and mixing up the vats of blood for any of our shows just yet. However, lately I’ve been working with Theatre of the Damned on their production of Grand Guignol, which opened at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden yesterday, and it's got me properly thinking about horror theatre for the first time.

As a genre it often treads a fine line between the terrifying and the farcical, and I have a real respect for the skill it takes to balance that line – one misjudged decision by an actor or a director and the audience are lost, one laugh from one member of the audience and the atmosphere can be shattered for everyone. I can think of few types of theatre which are quite so fragile - it's not for the faint-hearted in any respect!

It's creating theatre in a genre more normally associated with film, so it is often working with an audience who have expectations beyond the usual capacities of theatre. It means companies are faced with an uphill struggle to compete with the time, resources and advantages that film has. You can’t hide on stage - you can’t decided what your audience gets to look at by cutting away to mask a change or take several hours to create a makeup effect on an actor who has just had something terrifying done to them. You need to see the results now, and the audience need to be allowed to watch while you make it happen. They will be focussed on the whole stage and one false step, a delay, an effect which looks ridiculous, an actor who isn’t completely on cue, and the audience will laugh.

This makes it all the more impressive when it can works. In the recent evening from Nouveau Guignol one play climaxed with vitriol being thrown into an actor’s face. Nouveau Guignol didn’t make that false step, and the audible gasp from the audience when, seconds after being attacked, the skin actress’s face was visibly beginning to dissolve and bubble proved it. I was later told that to achieve this effect the actress in question had to spend the entire show up to that point with her face covered in one substance, and take advantage of the mere seconds her face was out of the sight of the audience to complete the effect on herself.

As with all theatre, the cast are needed to put in performances truthful enough to make the audience care about them and to tell their story clearly and coherently. To be able to do this whilst simultaneously setting off effects and rapidly applying makeup, often whilst still screaming and writhing in agony is, as a play from Grand Guignol calls it “the triumph of their art”.

Horror theatre must not only make the impossible possible, but also be able to brush quickly past it in the name of the story; effects and trickery must only ever support the atmosphere and story, rather than overshadow it. To leave an audience wondering “Impressive - how was that done?” is as bad as generating a laugh. I don’t want to give anything away, but I’ve seen first hand the hours of effort that Theatre of the Damned put into on-stage effects which last moments on stage.

This kind of innovation, coupled as it must be with strong performances and scripts, pushes the boundaries of what is possible on stage and makes horror theatre thrilling on many levels. With Ghost Stories selling out in the West End and annual fringe event Terror attracting names like LaBute and Ravenhill at the Southwark Playhouse, as well as Theatre of the Damned presenting Grand Guignol in Camden, it is clear that horror theatre is again taking its place on stage, and that audiences are benefiting from all the innovation and excitement that it brings.

All images from Grand Guignol
by Theatre of the Damned.

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