I’m sure there are many of us out there who would consider themselves a lover of horror films; we all love to be scared, made to jump, even cower behind our cushions or sofa – but what do you do when there is no sofa to cower behind? No pause or mute button and no screen to stop you from telling yourself, “It’s just a film, it’s not real”? Well that is precisely what Theatre of the Damned are trying to do with As Ye Sow, their first full production being performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year.
You might think that theatre couldn’t possibly be as scary as a film because you need a sinister sound track and a jumpy camera style (a la Black Swan), but Theatre of the Damned are pushing forward a theatrical style of horror which could scare you out of your wits even more than film. “Theatre is fundamentally more visceral and immediate,” says director and co-artistic director of the company Tom Richards. “Obviously there are some things you can’t do (such as CGI and cutaways) but the immediacy, real people and the effects you can pull off on stage are a lot more surprising.”
In As Ye Sow, audiences can expect slow building creepiness throughout, an eeriness to the script which suggests the unnatural, shocks and stage magic – effects you might see in a film (apart from the gore) replicated on stage. Lead actor Jeffrey Mayhew says of the piece: “I’m quite happy being in it; I don’t think I could watch it”.
As Ye Sow centres on Clifford, a man who has just been put into an old people’s care home, no longer able to cope with running his farm as he suffers from the aftermath of the disappearance of his wife eight years ago. It is unclear whether the action is solely in Clifford’s mind or whether reality bleeds in from the old people’s home, but that is one of the things that the audience can decide for themselves. “It is excellent theatre first and foremost, then its psycho drama and then its horror,” says Mayhew. Scarlet Sweeny, who plays Clifford’s daughter Susan, agrees: “I just want to tell the truth of the piece,” she states. “It’s a very well written piece so its quite easy to do that.”
The relationship established between Clifford and Susan – that of a daughter wrestling with her conscience over placing her father in a home and a father unhappy in his present circumstances – means they both have a dark shadow hanging over them and one audiences will be able to respond to. Many people have to get to grips with putting their parent(s) into a home, so the stark reality of the narrative brings out the horror that can be found in our own lives as well as in the mind.
With action dipping in and out of Clifford’s psyche, the piece moves from psychological drama to horror. This is communicated of course through dramatic effects, but it’s also buried in the writing. Stewart Pringle, writer and co-artistic director with Richards, has been a “huge horror buff” since he was in his teens. Together with Richards, he explored theatre horror at university and transformed their passion into a theatre company exploring the world of live horror. They’ve already had an evening of three shorts in London last year, of which As Ye Sow was one, and have set up an annual horror festival. As Ye Sow was the piece that received the most interest from both audiences and reviewers and both lead actors are enjoying taking to the piece for a second time.
At the Fringe, the piece really has space to breathe, time to really wind the audience up and also allow them a few laughs and touching moments along the way. After Edinburgh, the company returns to London with a new piece for Halloween. The company particularly enjoy receiving mixed audiences with people willing to take a gamble on something new and different. It’s a genre that can attract those who may not have attended the theatre before as well as those who do not see themselves as fans of horror. It’s not out-and-out gore, blood and guts; it’s the psychological and naturalistic nature of the piece that seems to be drawing the crowds. So don’t be too squeamish – it’s all in your mind, after all.
Image credit: Theatre of the Damned