As we navigate a new world where physical closeness correlates less with comfort than with lethal threat, what if emotional intimacy was also shadowed with some invisible, contagious danger? Host, a new chilling and familiar online horror by Danse Macabre, asks: “Do you think you can be too close to someone?”
Mysteriously 15-year-old Julia (Gracie Peters) is isolated in her home and seeking companionship through regular video chat lessons with her online tutor Fay (Annemarie Anang). As classes turn into cries for help, Fay’s close yet far proximity with her student poses a progressively darker threat.
Horror is often at its best when it casts a menacing fog of uncertainty over the most mundane aspects of life. So, to haunt the very domestic technology on which we’re viewing the show is a gripping concept put forward by writer, Sam Essame. Fay’s subject, English, is also wielded well throughout a script whose central horror revolves around the rules, difficulties, and corruptions of language and communication, and not necessarily the supernatural itself.
The world of the play exists mostly between two set frames: Fay’s screen, depicting Julia’s study space, and an angled shot of Fay as she looks on, but away from the camera at her screen. As these angles favour Fay’s perspective, Lisa Millar’s direction marries cleverly with a script that centralises this character’s slow discovery of a sinister reality. However, given this mostly static scenery, the pace of the text in revealing information and driving the plot could do a little more to hold our attention.
Details of the supernatural force itself (a possessive, shadowy spirit that forces its host to isolate, lest they pass it to someone close to them) remain very abstract and thus difficult to invest much fear into. Along with endless possible references to Covid-19, that the spirit is finally coughed up and inhaled from one host to the next is also a little on-the-nose.
As Fay begins to suspect that her student is being quarantined by her parents (Daniel Robinson and Rebecca McKinnis) against her will, Host addresses pertinent, difficult themes of domestic abuse. This is handled with particular grace by Anang’s notably thoughtful performance as a teacher whose history of intervention in a pupil’s personal life has gotten her into trouble before.
The show being performed entirely live online is an immense achievement for the production team, and the chemistry maintained between the actors through the intricate authenticity of their reactions is an enormous credit to each of their commitments to adapting to a changing artistic climate.
Despite this impressive feat, the suspense does suffer in the transitions between scenes. In the short but numerous ‘blackouts’, intended to separate the video calls and show time passing, the audience grows accustomed to non-linear interferences like characters suddenly appearing on screen or being interrupted by technical difficulties. Any eerie technological interruptions that form part of the plot are, therefore, slightly disenchanted by our settling into the structure of the work.
Brilliantly performed and resourcefully produced, Essame’s idea to use Zoom as a tool to haunt a hundred houses at once this Halloween is bewitchingly original.
With issues of pacing and production addressed, Danse Macabre could lead the way in a new age of live horror that darkens our very own doors.
Host streams online at The Space until October 30th. For more information and tickets, see The Space’s website.