Having reached a point where I’m reviewing my 900th online show ( I know!) since the pandemic began, I wanted to make it something a bit special. Although a staple approach for the last eighteen months, the frequency of livestreams from venues has diminished recently but, fortunately yesterday there was one right on cue and from an actor I have followed with interest; I was not disappointed, even though I’d seen half the content before
Stephen Smith of Threedumb Theatre is something of a Gothic horror aficionado especially when it comes to the works of Edgar Allan Poe. As lockdown first took hold he livestreamed a version of The Tell Tale Heart and earlier this year performed an exceptionally good version of The Black Cat using multiple locations within a converted church – The Space in London’s Docklands – to livestream a truly innovative piece. Smith has now returned to the same venue and added two new pieces to the mix to create One Man Poe, a tour de force showcase both for himself and the writer he admires. This quartet of short stories have all been converted into monologues using the original words and without textual editing. This alone makes it an outstanding feat of memory. I’ve just done a word count and it is in excess of 13,000; to put that in context Hamlet (the character) has just shy of 12,000. Smith barely falters throughout the two hours it takes to narrate the tales and, of course, he isn’t just simply narrating but embodying four different characters with the same verve and artistry as filmic hero Lon Chaney – though with considerably less reliance on makeup.
Part One is a reworking of The Tell Tale-Heart set in an insane asylum where a psychotic inmate tries to justify to us/an orderly (Jack Hesketh)/himself why he wantonly disposed of an old man for the crime of possessing what Poe calls “a vulture eye”. It’s a chilling beginning as Smith appears in a set of restraints which limit his movement leaving him to tell the story with just his voice and face. As I’d already seen this piece as Threedumb’s first foray into Poeland last year I thought this might not hold my attention, but not a bit of it. The reframing and development that has occurred in the interim have given it extra weight and depth and with the camera able to get up close, the madness in the character’s eyes becomes all too real.
Part Two is one of the new pieces, The Pit And The Pendulum. I thought I knew this story of a Spanish Inquisiton prisoner being tortured well enough but had forgotten quite how masterfully Poe ramps up the horror of the dark dungeon and the terror of the descending blade. This is made all the more vivid by Joseph Furey’s sound design, which is enough to drive the listener to distraction, never mind the central character. Smith creates a persona full of desperation and fully explores the psychological effects of unremitting torture which can only make us think of others still suffering under oppressive regimes.
Once again, Smith spends a great deal of the second section virtually immobile, so it is a nice change of pace to see the restless character he has created for part three, The Black Cat. This is the longest piece and although the protagonist starts out seemingly as an everyman, the narrative goes on to encompass alcoholism, paranoia, a house burning, domestic violence, animal cruelty, immurement (look it up) and capital punishment, so there is plenty to chew on. Fortunately, the performance is subtle enough to avoid scenery chewing excess but of all the characters on show (none of whom are blessed with names) this one is the least sympathetic. If I’m honest I preferred this tale in its previous incarnation when the production ranged right round the gothic interiors of The Space but with its almost casual cruelty and well considered framing device it still has the power to garner a reaction.
The last piece, and second new addition, is a performance of Poe’s famous poem The Raven. An old man recalls a lost love, Lenore, and the question asserts itself is she lost because he has done something to her? His continued though hazy recall even made me think that this might be the same character as in The Black Cat now in some sort of eternal purgatory following his demise and that Lenore was the wife he did away with. If so it is entirely appropriate to think that the cat has now transmogrified into its winged counterpart, a raven sent to torture him with its incessantly enigmatic cries of “Nevermore” – suggesting there will never be any respite. (My apologies if I’m barking up the wrong tree, or should that be miaowing or even cawing?) It’s possibly the best known of the quartet, if only because it is so regularly anthologised and parodied – even The Simpsons have had a go at it I recall. What lifts it to new heights though is, once again Smith’s characterisation and performance. This time he transforms himself into an old man complete with convincing stoop, quavering voice and one blind eye which thereby neatly recalls the unseen victim in the first tale. And thus, we come full circle!
Threedumb is taking this production to Southwark Playhouse for Halloween itself but before that, there’s still just time to catch it at The Space this weekend as part of the London Horror festival; it’s also due to be on demand via the latter really soon so keep an eye (vulture-like or otherwise) on Threedumb’s website. With horror’s big night just around the corner what could be more appropriate than four macabre tales from the king of the genre? And when you factor in some superlative performance skills from an actor on the cusp of great things then you’re clearly in for a treat … and quite a few well-placed tricks as well.
Production photos by Alya Sayer
One Man Poe was a one off live stream but should be available on demand soon. For Threedumb’s website – click here
For an interview with Stephen Smith (at the time of performing The Black Cat) click here
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