The Fall of the House of Usher

Tue 23rd – Sat 27th August 2011

reviews

Donnchadh O'Conaill

at 13:20 on 26th Aug 2011

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Berkoff’s reworking of Edgar Allen Poe’s dark fable has the poet appear as an old friend of Roderick Usher, summoned to the ancestral home to witness the titular collapse. Roderick and his sister Madeline, the last of the Usher line, decay before his eyes; ancestral ghosts snatch at his feet and haunt his dreams; the play finishes with a spectacular depiction of the house, both physical and genealogical, caving in on itself.

Perse Players’ production is frustrating and riveting in almost equal measure. For a school production on a presumably tight budget, it looked very slick, with technically excellent lighting throughout. The cast as a whole are to be commended for their focus, staying in often physically demanding character through a play which lasted over an hour. Three cast members played the Usher ancestors and, apparently, the house itself; each had a specific physical condition (twitches, contortions, tics) which was adhered to throughout.

Where the production struggled somewhat was with the lead characters. The actor playing Roderick was, at his best, superbly charismatic, oozing menace and entitlement as he stalked the stage. However, when considered less as a special effect and more as a character, the performance felt one-dimensional. This isn’t a play that puts a premium on realism, but he could have shouted a little less, and his accent was sometimes too fruity to stay on the right side of comic. The actress playing Madeline similarly gave a very good performance of a somewhat tired idea. Swaying on her feet, walking in figures of eight, grinning and clutching at her dress, hers was a consummate portrait of the madwoman in the attic.

The problem is partly to do with direction and partly, one suspects, with the script itself. None of the leads was allowed much character beyond phantasmagoria or straightforward reactions to same, so while certain sequences worked very well, over the course of the play it felt repetitive. Similarly, the themes of moral and physical decay were not allowed to emerge gradually, but were forced on us from almost the first scene. Edgar was a solid straight man to his grotesque hosts, but his constant horror at what he was witnessing left the actor with nowhere to take the character. His plight mirrored that of the audience: often transfixed by what was unfolded, but given too little room to form our own opinions.

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Pat Massey

at 15:16 on 26th Aug 2011

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For those of you considering this because you've read either the source material or its author, be prepared. Typical Poe involves innocuous beginnings disrupted by a vague harbinger, a detached but increasingly troubled narrator and Gothic excesses erupting only within the closing pages.

But Steven Berkoff doesn't do subtle. In his 1982, the Falklands effort is conducted by Maggot Scratcher and delivered in rhyme. And this cast of recent school leavers have taken the Berkoff spirit to heart, an unfortunate consequence of which is shouting. For Emma Murray, as the invalid Madeline, a good chunk of script is screeching. On its own, this could have been acceptable as part of her character's backstory. But in conjunction with Henry Beresford's ineffectual bawling as Usher (more projection, I would advise should he ever read this) and the excessive panic of Sam Marks' Narrator, every screamed line alienated me further. Where was the classic Poe escalation of terror?

But to judge their show on my preconceptions is a cardinal sin of reviewing, and so I tried to be receptive to the Hammer House of Horror vibe the Perse Players had adopted. In this light, Beresford's effete delivery, his determination to indulge every vowel going, rather suited the Usher character; similarly, the affectedly deep voice of Andrew North's Servant. Even Murray's persistent rictus grin was an effective throwback to the Grand Guignol. What is most admirable is that, despite these superficialities, and despite the deluge of make-up, the cast never let appearances be a substitute for energy.

For me, the production worked best as a wellspring of creativity. Some of these are attributable to Berkoff; a post-modern episode in the library almost prompted me to write 'This is getting interesting' without a trace of irony. But the production team deploys much from a mental filing-cabinet of genius: the use of hands as fungi; the use of Madeline's white dress as letter-paper; and the lighting, where not a foot was put wrong. It is hard to imagine what one can do with white shafts of light in a green miasma until Beresford passes between them and conjures up the essence of a corpse. A surfeit of strobe lighting disorientates not to the point of sickness, but of fear.

I may not agree with the director's approach to the source material, but to criticize the way this production is envisaged would be to criticize the spirit of ingenuity the Fringe is about. As long as these students can 'dial it back' for university productions, there is much to be hopeful about.

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