Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Something Wicked this way comes...

Coming up to Halloween I would like to talk to you about fear. So come my pretties, switch the lights off and snuggle down, are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll... BOO!

Scared? No...?

Sheesh, tough crowd.

I will say from the outset I am true fan of horror, even of the lowest-common denominator soft-core-porn-actress chased by the dying embers of a movie franchise and collapsing in a stabbing fury of nipples and false blood kind. The reason this form of manipulative awful film is still a pleasure, beyond the irony of its sheer awfullness? Because it can still scare you. It only takes a second, one bright idea or a single moment of tension. Fear is the great leveller. Anyone can scare you and anyone can be scared.

There is no reaction that is more gutteral and immediate than that of fear. It is the crystal meth of the masses - your heart races, time flies, you don't know where you are - all you know is that this thick, hot uneasiness has crept up on you and you want to it to go away.

Paul Arendt thinks fear in the theatre is dead. Which is a shame because it has the potential to be the most populist form of theatre while producing genuinely affecting, unconvential pieces of creative work.

The genre of horror, a wildly popular moneyspinner in other branches of entertainment, is practically absent from the stage…. In fact, there is so little shock and gore available that a tiny fringe theatre in south London can accurately claim to be hosting Britain's only annual festival of horror theatre. It seems theatre has no desire, or indeed ability, to scare.

Problem for me is, Arendt has it all wrong. Horror may be 'dead' in the red-seated, circle and stalls auditorium but I would argue it was never there in the first place. The live performance of horror, I can assure you, is alive and kicking and screaming.

Arendt traces his line of horror through Sophocles and Shakespeare to Grand Guignol and the present day. Now for starters its not like we don't get enough of the first two these days. Clearly if Arendt wants to argue that they were once the Hitchcock and Carpenter of their respective days what has changed is the reception or the nature of the performance not the plays themselves.

For the Hellenic audience Gods and monsters were as existant outside of the ampitheatre as in it and the experience of theatre was a great, quasi-religious spectacle communally experienced by the almost all of the polis. In such a heightened environment are stories of pregnant women miscarriaging in fear really so surprising? And as for Shakespeare and the Jacobean revenge tragedians, the audience may have relished the gore and suffering, but is there any evidence that they were scared by it any more than we are when we watch Shakespeare or Webster now?

Which brings us on to Grand Guignol which, far from being the last death throes of a venerable tradition I would site as the instigation of a new form of horror performance.

In the early 20th century, sophisticated audiences would flock to the smallest theatre in Paris to witness torture, execution, acid slayings and geysers of stage blood, unrestrained by the sniffy considerations of morality. This was drama as a roller-coasting ghost train, breaking taboos for the sheer dirty fun of it. Max Maurey, who ran the theatre in its heyday, would measure each night's success by the number of people who fainted during the show, and kept a doctor on hand in case of fits.

As Arendt points out, the schtick with the doctor was just that, a theatrical coup by a man with a nose for publicity; but that in itself tells us something vital about Grand Guignol's appeal. In truth the Grand Guignol plays were never that frightening. What was terrifying was the experience of Grand Guignol - it was the manipulation of the performance of going to the theatre that terrified audiences.

The Grand Guignol theatre was a tiny 300 seater auditorium at the end of a sinister cul-de-sac in the Pigalle district of Paris. The theatre itself was a poorly converted church that sat squattly in the middle of the road at the far end of the street. An evening of scares at the Grand Guignol started before you reached the theatre. You knew you were going to Paris' most terrifying spectacle, you were ready to be scared, and to get to the theatre you tiptoed down the dark, threatening, Impasse Chaptal, listening to mysterious moans and cries from the brothels and other dens of ill repute that towered around you. Your experience had already begun.

When you entered the theatre, the gloomy auditorium was littered with remnants of the Grand Guignol's religious past, iron railings round the boxes and two large angels hovering above the orchestra pit. The doctor skipped up and down the crowded rows nervously. The smell was the musty oppressive odour of the church (the origonal home of terror) mixed with the thick, pungent odour of the pork offal used for the tricks. This is not 'roller coaster' drama of the ghost train. This is the sinister, claustrophobic terror of the haunted house.

And in such an environment when the genuinely clever special effects of the Grand Guignol caused the gouging eyes and the severing arms to manifest themselves before you, you really didn't know what you were watching. It was not that the Grand Guignol Theatre complemented the drama, the drama complemented the terror of the experience of the Theatre building itself, and that terror wasn't over until you had once more traversed the cul-de-sac and made it home to a nicer, safer part of the world.

This was the true experience of the Grand Guignol, and this terrifying form of site-specific performance is still with us. Next time you find yourself at the Edinburgh fringe, take an hour out to go on a ghost tour. Be guided through dark, damp chambers (chambers that form part of the same underground you were happy to sit in and have a drink when it was 'set-dressed' as a pub or as the 'Underbelly' theatre venue) by a theatrical guide while actors jump out at various appropriate moments.

I myself in my University days used to guide people round these very vaults and I can assure you it is all theatre, the dark chambers were built in the 1800s and have never housed anything more frightening than a tramp or two. The stories we tell are theatre, performed for an audience prepared and expecting to be scared, in a dark, oppressive performance space. These places are the true descendants of the Grand Guignol. Again, the interchangeable stories are irrelevant, it is the performance of this theatrical space that draws such screams and faintings in both cases (and we did have faintings). And again as with the Grand Guignol, these tours are hugely popular with everyone from school parties of scottish teenagers, to American or German or Japanese tourists, to the excitable melee of fringe-going Theatre types.

And for those who stick there nose up at such cheap shocks, again I tell ye, go and see (nay, experience) Punchdrunk Production's Faust. Step out of Shadwell tube station and stalk nervously through the high rise council estate to a derelict looking warehouse. This is as much a part of the performance as anything that takes place inside the venue. And once you are in, when the lift attendant lets a group of four of you out on to an abandoned floor, with nothing in front of you but a barely lit corridor with a single small white statue of the virgin mary left in the middle of it, try telling me that the hairs on your neck aren't reaching for the ceiling and that the same hot, sticky treacle of fear is not dribbling down your throat and welling at the bottom of your stomach.

Far from being dead, terror and fear in Theatre (capital T) are as terrifying and as popular as they ever were. To find them you simply have to step outside the theatre.

(Cross-posted from my newly re-jigged arts blog The Arcades Project, for those who enjoy this sort of thing, now I'm up and if not running yet at least, stumbling forward, do start to drop by from time to time)

2 comments:

Evil of Dron said...

I had the misfortune to visit the "Edinburgh Dungeon" a year or two ago. Naff hardly describes the emptyness and stupefying banality. If you want to be scared try my Eyeball Omelet. "But there are no eyeballs in that omelet" you cry, peering into the pan! ...Plop, plop.

regards
Evil

JuliaM said...

A horror fan, eh? What do you make of this story?

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/6101704.stm

Just hype for Halloween? If so, why is the BBC giving free publicity to a lowbrow 'populist' horror film?