A GOTHIC SORROW IN OLD BOSTON
When you say you’re off to a Suffolk village hall to see a tiny company – best known for its mini-pantos – doing a dramatised tribute to Edgar Allan Poe, you meet some baffled , even pitying glances. They’d have missed a treat: writer-director Pat Whymark of Common Ground has created something lovely, between gilt pillars and a filmy curtain and screen: a funny, mournful, humane tribute to the Victorian-gothic horror ornamentalist whose imagination created the Pit and the Pendulum.
An empathetic portrait, with beautiful songs performed by Emily Bennett and brilliantly devised projections, draws us into the morbid world of the troubled soul who wrote The Tell-Tale Heart. And it has indeed, for all the irresistible temptations to laugh, a lot of heart.
It’s framed as if Poe (Richard Galloway). is onstage in Boston in evening dress and, having mislaid the poem he was booked to read, decides to tell his story. He is also batting off protests from a literary magazine grandee (Julian Harries, who doubles as his stern adoptive father who considered he was ‘bad blood’). At issue are Poe’s scorching criticisms of the Victorian-American establishment of affluently bred writers like Longfellow. He claims to be “the first American author ever to subsist entirely on the proceeds of his writing” It may turn out that Poe is hallucinating the whole thing, after the desperate brain crisis at the end of his life when he was found confused, screaming, in the wrong clothes.
But he tells his life, from birth in 1809, the loss of his mother when he was two, an uneasy childhood and the rediscovery – and then death – of his brother Henry. He diverts into telling and enacting three of his terrifying tales, rather brilliantly with the aid of Matthew Rutherford and Harries and spooky, mournfully elegant movement and song from Bennett. Interestingly he expresses awareness of his own absurdities, claiming that the massively overblown “Ligeia” is actually a satire on himself.
Indeed its heroine, “radiant as an opium-dream..preyed on by the tumultuous vultures of stern and extreme passion” for the narrator is marvellously preposterous, as is his response to her death by “purchasing an abandoned abbey and becoming a slave in the trammels of opium”. When the possessed corpse of his next wife, “The Lady Rowena” revives in her shroud (a remarkable core-strength Pilates situp from Emily Bennett) you know you are in the hands of a grand-guignol master. The Pit and the Pendulum is done with equal brio (I had forgotten that when one is tied down with a single long strap all one needs to do is smear meat-gristled hands on it for the rats to eat it through). Then there’s the fiery pit..but it’s OK, the Spanish Inquisition is foiled by French soldiers, with due exoticism.
But all through this fun run the travails of a real man, a real talent: frustrated by the “aristocracy of wealth” and bien-pensant criticism in late-19c America, desperately campaigning for copyright law as his own tales and plays got stolen. Clearly his grief for mother and brother is aggravated by his wife’s death; and as Dickens, an admiring visitor, says to him “Grief will out”. Maybe that is what in the end killed him. Certainly after a final battle with the literati , telling the Fall of the House of Usher, poor Poe cries “I didn’t want to be IN the story”. And his final recitation of The Raven, with its shadow on his lonely study floor, is heartbreaking. Will these old griefs leave him?
…..”tell me truly, I implore—Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore!”.
Breaks your heart.
Box office www.commongroundtc.co.uk.
Touring east anglia, village halls and theatres to 30 Oct. COlchester next. RATING. FOUR