Oxford-based production company Creation Theatre bring their adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum to Clapham’s Omnibus Theatre. Combining immersive binaural sound design with projection and live performance, the 1843 short story from the master of macabre is brought thoroughly up to date by writer and director Christopher York in collaboration with performer and dramaturg Afsaneh Dehrouyeh.
Poe’s original story of a man sentenced to a gruesome death by the Spanish inquisition, is transposed to present day Iran, where a young woman (played by Dehrouyah) is imprisoned in a cell for feminist political protest. The production retains the psychological torture elements of the original; of being trapped in a room with walls closing in, a foot-long blade pendulum swinging ever lower above her, and a pit of unknown depth in the middle of the cell. Dehrouyah’s character is fiercely adamant that she will not be broken by her faceless torturers.
Though written by a white man, I am satisfied that Dehrouyah certainly had a hand in crafting her character. As a performer she holds the audience in her thrall as she feels out the edges of her prison and argues with the disembodied voice of Poe (played convincingly by Nicholas Osmand) as he narrates her torture through reciting sections of the original text. Of course, Dehrouyeh’s character recognises the words of the original story for she is a literary scholar as well as a freedom fighter: “no, please, I can chronicle myself!” This production, therefore, interacts with its source material in a way that fresh, imaginative and frequently funny despite its bleak setting.
One thing missing, however, is the atmosphere of almost paranormal creepiness that characterises Poe’s original work. A great deal of the original’s eeriness is lost in the realism of this new setting: much of the terror of the original is not knowing why or by whom the narrator has condemned, whereas in this version the audience is able to infer as much from the setting alone, and any sense of uncertainty is dissipated by the denouement of the piece.
From a dramaturgical perspective, the production could have recaptured some of this fear of the unknown by setting parts of it in total and complete darkness and have the audience’s senses limited to hearing alone. This may have even been the original intent that was thwarted by health and safety requirements of emergency exit lights.
The headphones that all audience members are required to wear simultaneously remove you from the action slightly, as there is the sense that you are listening to something happening either far away or pre-recorded, yet they conjure the immediacy of being able to hear every breath and sigh of the performer. Additionally, Matt Eaton’s binaural sound design is impressively immersive; allowing you to hear the sounds of a damp dripping in the corner and ever lowering swoosh of the pendulous blade. At once you are removed from the action, one of many rows of silent, complicit observers visible only by the red unblinking red on each headset and also experiencing it from the prisoner’s point of view (point of hearing?). Together with Eva Auster’s video projection, the production is at risk of being gimmicky however these elements are used judiciously together to create a gripping production that commands your attention for every second of it.
Arguably, the underlying anti-patriarchal message of this production is preaching to the choir. However, I would counter that the pertinence of the play is in not only highlighting the struggle for women’s rights in the Middle East but also in the representation of a smart, strong-willed Middle Eastern Muslim woman who is the antithesis of the of the meek and submissive stereotype. Such representation on the London stage is valid and important.
Creation Theatre’s The Pit and the Pendulum is certainly not an adaptation in any traditional sense – though I don’t think many Poe fans will be too disappointed with this stimulating and experientially immersive rendering of the text.
The Pit and the Pendulum is playing at the Omnibus Theatre until 24 November. For more information and tickets, click here.