Dark, Depressing, Dripping with Symbolism and Ultimately Uplifting….
The Killing of Poe – Offbeat Theatre at St. Richard’s School, Wednesday 17th February.
Extraordinarily apposite for the BBC’s ‘In the Mind’ week, ‘The Killing of Poe’, conceived, written, designed and directed by Barbara Hockley is a dark, neo-gothic tale about the power of the mind. The Actor (Mark Cox) is fading and ‘coming to the end of his time’ – only his mental faculties are keeping him alive. Reason, Survival instinct, Cunning, Emotion and Self-perception (in equal measure with Vanity) are all he has left. These faculties are assailed by the Narrator, (played with characteristic gusto by Hugh Farey) who threatens to attack and destroy the Actor’s mind. Ironically, it is the Actor’s own powers of persuasion that give the Narrator a ‘voice’, thus allowing him to adumbrate his particularly twisted and dark notions of death into the deepest reaches of the Actor’s mind and into the individual and collective psyche of the audience. Utilising tales from the macabre imagination of Edgar Allan Poe the Narrator figuratively, and in some cases literally, disarms his opponents.
Ms Hockley’s theatrical instincts and unique perception of the world (internal and external) are here combined with an informed and well-researched understanding of the field of American Neo-Gothic Literature and Shakespeare, and her decision to place the action in the mind of an actor allows her to utilise her theatrical background to good effect. Quotes from Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet sit un-nervingly with Poe’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘Pit and the Pendulum’, ‘Raven’ and ‘Tell-Tale Heart’, to create a confusing, disturbing and frightening turmoil within the mind of the Actor. Similarly, the dystopian state is cleverly demonstrated by staging the action in the Actor’s dressing-room, a theatrical device which allows her to dress the character ostensibly for the next ‘turn’ in his act, but also shows, sometimes with comic counterpoint, the mental conflict playing out in the mind. One particularly ‘off-beat’ example of this juxtaposition is a contemplative section of the piece wherein Cox, as the Actor, wrestles uncomfortably with the notion of the savagery of the human psyche whilst dressed as a clown; one of the many devices used in this thought-provoking and in many ways disturbing theatrical event.
Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is famously a tale of decay, of entropy and of the frailty of humanity, both physically and psychologically, yet, in ‘The Killing of Poe’, Ms Hockley demonstrates also the resilience of the human spirit because ultimately, in this tale at least, the power of the mind, embodied by Reason, Survival instinct, Cunning, Emotion and Self-perception, overcomes the invader and lives to fight on. Whether one chooses to see the interloper, ‘Poe’, as Mental Illness, Alzheimer’s or any other affliction of the mind is one of personal choice, but as an evening of visually exciting and sometimes disturbing theatre, Ms Hockley’s ‘The Killing of Poe’ was an event that I am pleased to have witnessed.
The word Drama is derived from the Greek verb δράω, (draō) – to ‘act’ or to ‘do’. Barbara Hockley demonstrates with this piece that she is eminently capable of taking action, of ‘doing’. By conceiving, writing, producing and bringing this piece to life, she shows us that the mind is a powerful tool at humanity’s disposal; that it is sometimes frail, sometimes fails us, but is capable of extraordinary accomplishments. Mental Health provision in this county is criminally under-funded and many people with mental health challenges are victimised and stigmatised by society. Whether or not it was intentional, Ms Hockley’s play shines a uniquely individual and though-provoking light onto a subject that is often ignored, demonised and hidden from society, and she, along with the rest of her production team should be applauded for that.