Rebecca Vaughan's medley of classic ghoulish tales is a tricky treat at The MAC
A single puckered leather armchair under a spotlight. A candelabra, a red velvet drape and a glass, presumably brimming with Malmsey wine. It’s every morbid, mawkish teenager’s dream bedroom. I know – it was mine.
All that is missing are a joss-stick, a prenologist’s head and the Symbolist paintings of Odilon Redon or Gustave Moreau. The stage is very definitely set.
A single figure appears, eyeballing the crowd, dwarfed by her own shadow. She is, unsurprisingly, a woman in black. She is gaslight green and ghastly: perfect for an evening of Gothic tales.
There are three stories tonight, fairly seamlessly blended by actor/writer Rebecca Vaughan – most recently seen at The MAC in Austen’s Women – and each written by female authors.
Approximately 85% of 'sensation' novelists were women, deliberately abandoning the social realist novels of the time to examine other more taboo subjects. They were celebrated too: ME Braddon, author of the first story here, 'The Cold Embrace', was ranked alongside Dickens in her day, though it is hard to imagine why, on this evidence.
It is the story of a mittel-European art student who wrongs his intended (his cousin, naturally) while he gallivants around Europe on a grand tour. She, not quite seduced but very definitely abandoned, resolves to commit suicide on the very day that her fiancé returns from Antwerp looking to break off the engagement in person.
The first moment of horror comes as the student, wishing to sketch the suicide dragged from the river (art students are like that) realises that she is, in fact, his erstwhile love, recognising the ring, his mother’s. 'A golden snake, eating its own tail: a symbol of eternity.'
In a rare moment of wry humour, we learn that the student overcomes a momentary period of mourning because he 'is a genius and a metaphysician'. Nevertheless, the covenant of the ring is not so easily broken: she has sworn to be with him forever, and when he feels her damp arms around his neck he realises how true this is.
It is a dense and distancing piece to open with, and Vaughan’s voice is oddly hectoring, like a gym-mistress at Roedean. The language is obfuscating, a wall of rattled off verbiage. While her mummery and her attention to detail is extraordinary – business is booming on stage tonight – it lacks intimacy, lacks the collusion of a fire-side story. It is told at rather than to the audience.
As a consequence when the occasional piece of sly humour pops its head over the parapet, or when the tirade falters in its pace and she attempts to draw us in, the audience don’t react. We are watching the performance but we are not of it.
Vaughan impresses – her dancing a fast polka while breathlessly narrating the story is some feat – but it is only once we embark on the second story, which she relaxes into, that the audience collectively unclench.
It doesn’t hurt that Ellen Wood’s tale is an absolute corker: the story of mad professor and his lady love, Lucilla, who could never love a man who didn’t love animals, and about his quest for immortality and a 'mysterious medicine from the south seas'.
The Professor, described as 'an enthusiastic vivisectionist' and never happier than when injecting untested medicines into the guts of guinea pigs and beagles, balks at the notion of doing the same to humans.
So, following the poor example of Dr Jekyll and anticipating the equally misjudged Bruce Banner, he tests his new serum on himself. What follows is a tale deliciously told, culminating in an imaginative scene of being buried alive that would have Poe spinning in his, er, grave.
The third tale is perhaps the best of all. Vaughan has sufficiently relaxed into the performance to allow herself moments of both quiet and disquiet, and the range of dynamics is artful, augmented by sympathetic sound design (again much improved from the beginning of the play, when the repeated churning of water threatened to drown out the performance).
This is all to the good as writer Amelia Edward’s premise is essentially that of a woman haunted by a cupboard full of ink. I’m being sardonically reductionist here – one might as easily say that MR James’ 'Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad' is the story of a man bedevilled by a scary blanket.
As with all truly macabre stories – and this is something that modern horror cinema appears to have forgotten – the gimmick of the story is not the frightening part, it is the approach, the setting, the tease.
The very language should be haunted and this is what Vaughan understands completely. The final story subverts Victorian notions of the woman as hysteric – our protagonist descends into sanity, describing with clear-eyed, lucid prose the terrible things that happen around her.
Dyad’s production is spare and the direction, by Guy Masterson, is strong if a little pernickety. I’m not sure every event in the play needs be enacted quite so rigorously. But Vaughan’s performance is vital, energetic and, especially towards the end, beautifully realised.
The stories too prove themselves to be stars, a resource of spine-tingling fictions waiting to be tapped. These represent the first fruits: Halloween pumpkins carved into grinning grotesques. This production is a tricky treat.
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