In a perfect world, amateur theatre companies could present whatever plays they liked. Unfortunately, too many groups succumb to the lure of the almighty dollar, with well-worn comedies and overdone farces that provide “bums on seats” taking priority over more challenging theatre. It is refreshing then to see the Brisbane Arts Theatre continuing to use its Early Week theatre program to provide a range of plays which might not draw the general theatre-going public but which provide diversity and challenge for actors and audiences alike.
So it is with A Demon in My View, a trilogy of short gothic tales adapted for the stage by well-known local theatre identity Ron Kelly, based on the work of 19th Century literary figure Edgar Allan Poe. As the word “gothic” implies, these are indeed dark little plays. Any happiness the characters may feel is short-lived, and death and its aftermath is a common theme throughout. The Oval Portrait tells of an old man’s misery and guilt over the death of his new wife many years earlier; The Tell-Tale Heart depicts a young murderer facing his internal demons; while Ligeia portrays a man’s sad descent into madness as his dead wife’s ghost continues to haunt his existence. Suffice to say, if comedies are your thing, these plays are not for you.
Director Sandra Harman does well to guide her cast of eight through the trio of plays on a simple yet striking set. The lighting effects are excellent and add immeasurably to the creation of mood on stage. Sound effects are also largely successful although I personally find it grating to hear the “clunk” of a tape being stopped abruptly on more than one occasion. Costuming is also very effective but, to be extra-picky, I would like to see more authentic footwear and hairstyles for the ladies in the final play and some mud and grime on the uniform of the young soldier in the first offering.
As with much gothic drama, it is the males who have the pick of the “meaty” roles and the actors in this production do well in presenting an array of 19th Century gentlemen. The standout is Timothy Wotherspoon who as the young painter in The Oval Portrait and as Jonathon in The Tell-Tale Heart not only looks the part(s), but also displays a naturalness in movement and characterisation that demand attention whenever he is on stage. Rob Beckwith, who appears in all three plays, does quite well playing the older male parts and Gregory Rowbotham, as Joseph in Ligeia, has a shaky start but makes a fine attempt at a very difficult role. The few female roles on offer are less successful, mainly due to problems with vocal projection and diction. This was also a problem with some of the male actors and needs to be looked at, particularly when dealing with 19th Century language.
Overall, I felt the first two plays worked very well but if there was anything lacking, it was pace. Creating dramatic tension through sustained pauses can only be taken so far before it becomes laborious for the audience. There were times when it almost seemed the actors could not remember the next line as the pregnant pauses became excruciatingly long. The final play, Ligeia, is the least successful of the three and perhaps because it is the most difficult to pull off. The ghostly appearance of the dead wife does not work as well as it could and perhaps would be better served through the use of lighting effects, so that her appearance scares the pants off the audience as well as the poor husband on stage.
These are minor quibbles however for what is largely a very entertaining night of theatre. The Arts Theatre should be applauded for presenting this type of production for those of us who enjoy something different, something more challenging. Bravo!