Olympia: a Horror Play
Following the sell out ‘Grow’ in 2013 and critically acclaimed ‘The Assassination of Brian Boru’ in 2014, writer/director team in residence Lauren-Shannon Jones and Nora Kelly Lester (under the moniker of PYGMANKENSTEIN) present a tale of horror, medical menace and latent obsession adapted from E.T.A Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’.
I’ve never been to a horror play. I didn’t really know what a horror play would be like. I’m no theatre expert, but I sure am a horror enthusiast, so I was curious as heck heading into Olympia in the New Theatre. I tell ya, they didn’t make it an easy show to google, but I found my way there (pygmankenstein is luckily a v distinctive name). It was my first time to the New Theatre which, as it turns out, is a little bit like if you smushed The Peacock and Smock Alley together; it seats sixty-six but feels like only twenty, and you’re right beside the action of the stage. Definitely would like to go back (their feminist film festival starts tomorrow and looks really deadly.) I was lucky to catch one of the last performances of Olympia, which I’d heard whisperings about at Culture Night.
We enter the theatre and there’s one of those overhead projectors teachers used to use in class, so they can write on the notes you’re seeing projected. But instead of physics, there was a big massive eye projected onto the stage at an angle. There was also a person in full black with this matte black helmet on sitting by the projector. I was transfixed by this person, it was like daft punk were there. The opening scene was a pretty unsettling monologue (from Michael-David McKernan) in an optometrist’s office about eye problems, and the lighting and vague ominous ambient noises, paired with daft punk moving images around on the projector, and the increasing intensity of the monologue, all combined to completely slide-tackle the audience into tense rapture.
It was pretty deadly.
The small cast worked fluidly together. With only five actors there was no space for a weak point, and I was surprised by how often I found myself forgetting that these were rehearsed lines and not just conversations around this spooky eye-horror. There was great use made of the little theatre with all its doors. Multiple scenes used the audience space and the stairway into the theatre, which I felt added to the creepiness of the play, even if the scenes themselves weren’t creepy. It’s like in a horror film where the camera has to pan away to another corner of the room and you just know that something bad is happening where you’re not looking. For a play so focused on the eye, and sight itself, it made great use of the audience’s gaze.
There was one particular staging that had me almost trying to sneak my phone out of my pocket to capture. In the second half of the play, after Lothaire (played by Shane Robinson) has been in a fire and is lying in his sickbed with his sister Clara (Erin Gilgen) sitting on the side of his bed. The bed is dead centre-stage, and the light is so stark, and it was just gorgeous to see. The use of lighting and the overhead project in the play as a whole was so impressive at creating moods and atmosphere. I’ve not been to hundreds of plays, but this small production impressed me more than some of the bigger productions I’ve seen. I guess that can be true of horror productions in general; the big budget films sometimes aren’t as scary as the small low-budget films, the ones where you can see the seams a little bit. I reckon, if something works too smoothly in a technical sense we focus on trying to pick apart logic in the story, but if there’s small blunders in the storytelling form itself, it almost leads us to leave the underlying logic of the story unquestioned. Like unreliable narrators, or stories pieced together from different perspectives; we are so focused on trying to figure out what’s really happening under all that noise, that we don’t question the validity of the story itself and it becomes more real to us.
The set was only two sets of shelves, a desk and a chair, which the cast moved around super fast between scene changes. We could usually see this, but I think they worked it into the action kinda well. Maybe I’m just an old romantic for anything of the horror genre, but I feel like when you can see the people who were performing a role moments before suddenly switch into scene-changing mode and move the stage around, it’s not a huge leap to see how that could be an intentional device; like they were simply parts in the machinery this tale. How much was Nathaniel (McKernan) doomed to his fate once his charismatic professor (Aenne Barr) picked up on his eye-fixation and influenceable nature? There’s a concept in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, that time isn’t something that we leave behind or enter into, but rather a place. An event isn’t something that is in the future, and then happens, and then is in the past, but something that keeps happening in that place. This play managed to do something that a lot of horror tales don’t, which is to make it seem like these events were always going to happen they were only waiting to begin. There’s also that impression of cycles, as Nathaniel is not the first promising optometrist to enter into this undead horror house. The director and writer have worked together superbly on this play, and I don’t think it would have worked without such a close marriage or story and staging.
I’m looking forward to Rose and Dolly Missing which is the new play by the same creative team, on in the New Theatre on November 14th as part New Writers Week (Also def wanna check out Dylan Coburn Gray’s new play “Drawing Crosses On A Dusty Windowpane”. Boys and Girls was gas)
Photos by Al Craig