views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Cavern (The Vaults)
4th March 2015


Publicity image for Hellscreen

Photography © Susan Luciani

"L'enfer, c'est les autres," proclaimed Jean-Paul Sartre in a phrase that has been bastardised over the years to mean something very different to his original ontological intent. Still, much like everything else warped about our protagonist (but very much not a hero), this perverted meaning is one dear to the heart of artist Frank Holt (Jonny Woo).

He takes centre stage in Firehouse Creative and Double Barrel's modern, dark interpretation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa's 1918 short story Hell Screen. But while that might be the clear inspiration for the story, thematically it yanks a bit from Faust, nabs a tad from Punchdrunk and is certainly more than slightly influenced by Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror. I'm sure adapter Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and director Rachel Parish will probably balk at that comparison being made yet again, but spades and all that...

Anyway, tiring of throwing shit at the walls (literally) our lovable misanthrope is courted by mysterious benefactor Katherine Bowker (Suzette Llewellyn) who separates him from his daughter Amy (Vanessa Schofield) and charges him with his greatest work yet. What's that, you ask? A vision of hell as human misery, transmitted online, using his willing fans - chorus members Andrea Ling, Nick Gilbert, Julian Moore-Cook and Lousie Skaaning - as subjects. The (honestly rather predictable) ending of the original is subverted, but anything else would be spoilers.

Art reflecting man's inhumanity to man is nothing original, nor is a sense of absolute power corrupting absolutely. But Parish and designer Ana Ines Jabares Pita imbue proceedings with a nightmarish quality. You wander through a PVC strip curtain like lambs to the slaughter and on which disturbing imagery is projected to be greeted by the frantic and unnerving chorus, essentially Holt's Bacchae. The stage splits the space in half, making part of the production watching your fellow audience members' reactions to proceedings, being as goaded to judge by Frank.

It's a nice idea, mostly successful, but in going for the creep factor, the company pulls back just before the sweet spot. It's odd that a piece asking us to question art, and a main character asking us to question society, so deliberately antagonistic, lacks an edge to push us into that headspace. We're close enough to hear a blade for a stabbing is a retractable stage knife and no blood is drawn. We're close enough to see hypodermics for a heroin scene have no needles. Now I'm not suggesting they go full Holt, stab their cast or actually get 'em jacked up, but a bit of the Grand Guignol wouldn't have gone amiss.

In fact, that's the only real issue here. Unsettling, yes, but we're never taken hostage, highlighting the artifice. Woo is angry and threatening as Holt (and his final line chilling). The Schofield is sweet and innocent, and the Chorus utterly tireless. Film, sound and lighting are all faultless and top to bottom everyone deserves praise.

I so very wanted to be scared, to be confronted and my assumptions questioned. And technically, they are so very nearly there. But that's just me. The easily chilled will probably be looking for an escape, and for everyone else, there's simply a damn good modern campfire tale.

Hellscreen opened on 25th February and runs until 8th March 2015 at The Vaults.

Nearest tube station: Waterloo (Bakerloo, Northern, Jubilee)

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