The short stories of Edgar Allan Poe are the stuff that nightmares are made of, so it is fitting that Backhand Theatre have taken an approach to his tales that embraces the Gothic aesthetic of Hollywood horror. Melding together a number of his disturbing narratives into one piece framed within the ominous setting of a secluded lunatic asylum, there is more than a hint of Tim Burton to this dark but visually glittering show.
Backhand Theatre’s Gothic world is slickly rendered, with cleverly designed fragments of wall that wheel smoothly in and out of scenes, neatly incorporated elements of circus, and the obligatory atmospheric dry ice, not to mention an evocative if unsurprising lighting design. The framing narrative is also intelligently crafted: an increasingly doom-laden asylum inspection, presumably inspired by ‘The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether’, that acts as a vehicle to carry other well-known snippets of Poe, including ‘The Raven’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, fashioned as the tortured obsessions of the inmates.
This is all skilfully done, but Backhand Theatre’s marrying of these stories gleans little new meaning. Much here, in fact, feels a little surplus to the subject matter. Poe’s writing is sinisterly threatening enough by itself, requiring little embellishment, and the imposition of circus skills onto the stories – as beautiful and impressive as they may be – often feels superfluous. Only when two inmates sway precariously from metal rings as feathers scatter through the air does this acrobatic trickery truly enhance the mood of menace, a dangling warning of what awaits for those who enter this world and cannot then escape.
It is a threateningly dreamlike realm that Backhand Theatre have crafted, though its effect fails to fully grasp the visceral thrill it is reaching for. This is well executed, carefully thought through and occasionally gorgeous theatre, but it never makes the heart quicken quite as it should.
*** – 3/5 stars
Tales from Edgar Allan Poe is playing at C venues as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 27 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.
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