First published 5 July 2010, Author: Matthew Preston
Last Friday I went to see a musical production of Edgar Allen Poe’s life at the Barbican theatre in London. Yes, you read that correctly, a musical. About Edgar Allen Poe. But that is not all – a gothic, clowning, piece of physical theatre delivered in rhyme and song. And with hair as spiked as a black spiky thing. And ravens as big as people chasing the young Poe all around the stage.
The production was by Catalyst Theatre – a Canadian company – and was put on by the Barbican as part of the London International Festival of Theatre. The troupe entered into the circus of the play gamely; tightly choreographed, mostly in harmony they manipulated their bodies in time to the music like darker versions of Charlie Chaplin. Their costumes were straight out of the fairytale gothic wardrobe, and the gauze screen that seperated the back of the stage from the front half allowed some clever shadow work. However, too often the spectacle seemed a trifle hollow.
The actor playing Edgar Allen Poe was pushed and pulled around the stage by narrators, who declaimed to us in the style of ham-Shakespearean actors and promised doom and gloom to come. However, the forced rhyming couplets, and major scales used undercut any real tension in the proceedings. At the interval, a man behind me declared, “the actors are doing well, but it feels like an amateur production.” This was a bit harsh – the writing cleverly wove elements of Poe’s stories into his biography, blurring fiction into the facts of his life. But there was something missing.
It wasn’t the acting – all players showed a command and discipline of their bodies. Indeed the most powerful moments of the play came in big set pieces, where the actors writhed and contorted and harmonised in both the musical and physical space. Maybe a couple were not entirely in key all the time – but singing is more than just hitting the notes. All the actors inhabited their parts well – frequent costume changes abounded and all managed to imbue the range of characters they played with wit and verve.
However here we approach the nub of the issue. Characters flitted across the stage: Edgar’s mother and father, brother and sister, foster parents, school friends, girlfriend, wife, publisher, rival. However as costumes changed it was often hard to identify a similar change of character. All the women seemed to have the same gauche characters – even Poe’s 13 year old cousin-bride. This made it hard to relate to them,and lessoned the impact of the isolation and repeated betrayals of the central character. Edgar himself was mute but in his contorted defencelessness in the narrators’ wake his childlike vulnerability sparked the only feelings of compassion in the play.
There should have been more sorrow – but this Edgar lived his life in a circus. He should have been bewildered, abandoned, betrayed by his own character and finding solace only in stories that at their most brilliant are erudite and full of the darkness and misery of loneliness. Nevermore told of these things, but only in signposts and never with the subtlety and gentleness of touch that truly stirs the heartstrings. Cliché was piled on cliché and Tim Burton-like spectacle abounded – but this was the Burton of Big Fish and not Edward Scissorhands.
This was a worthy attempt. The style of the play was good and there were moments when it promised to attain that merger of exaltation and despair that good theatre can use to tear at an audience’s heart. But on the end, the style was elevated above substance. Maybe that’s not entirely inappropriate for an author that has sometimes been accused of that very crime: however Poe showed a greater flexibility than this one-dimensional offering achieved – and in the end Nevermore felt like a flimsy and shallow study.