Backhand Theatre, in association with C Theatre, presents three of Poe’s most famous stories: The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Tell-Tale Heart. In a studio space, with some of the audience seated on the floor, old wardrobes, a wooden bed with a single white sheet and cloaked, beaked and hooded figures, whom the light follows or shadows, create a tense atmosphere where even studio doors creak and a rustle, groan, beat or shriek can punctuate the stillness with meaning and menace.
Poe’s tales are ones of psychological horror and suspense, where senses are acute, love is oppressive, and madness is just round a corner, through a door, or much, much closer. Elegant words paint images that can curiously creep, slowly strangle and suddenly strike. Backhand Theatre create the atmosphere well, with sound effects that clearly set period and circumstance, and dusty lighting that focuses characters and scenes, leaving shadows to menace. Manipulation of the bed works well and fine use is made of an old man puppet, handled by two performers in unison. The stories are very clearly told and the language deftly spoken, but the building of suspense by narrator does vary in quality.
Publicity for this event easily creates a higher expectation of circus performance or gymnastics than actually on display, and a trapeze, while enriching the actor’s vocal variation when in use – a common side effect of fit physicality, rather than a deliberate technique – provided some visual interest but did not really add to the performance. It was put to minimal use and only connected to the occasional phrase, rather than helping the actor embody character, thought or feeling. It could have been very interesting if the actor had become the bird, but a raven puppet was presented, barely moving, and again not adding much to performance. Another narrator, while very clear in speech, did not play with physical or vocal texture and range, rather important for Poe and atmosphere. The third narrator used vocal and physical modulation very well, but overused forced volume at times which did not heighten suspense and somewhat hammered climactic revelation, despite fine use of lighting. The fourth actor was not quite as clear in articulation – though still intelligible – but did play his main character in a way that enhanced an atmosphere of foreboding, only sometimes becoming a little unbelievable.
Expectations of physicality created by this production’s description, and the delicate demands of building suspense, are not met to full satisfaction here, but overall Backhand Theatre’s production, Tales from Edgar Allan Poe, delivers clear well-written stories told with enough atmosphere and talent to cause shivers, jumps and the delicious thrill of dread, leaving you wanting more.
By Danielle Farrow
3 – 29 August (not 15), 22:45 (23:45) @ C Venues – C eca