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Despite Halloween season being well over (every day the sleigh bells ring just a little bit harder), there’s still plenty of time to catch a horror or two at the Courtyard Theatre over in Hoxton if you so desire. The London Horror Festival has had a quiet first half run, opening on the 25th October (running till the 27th November), but seeing as this is its first year the line-up is impressive. Shows include an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Dunwich Horror’, a history talk about Camden’s gory catacombs, Monster Hunters and a horror improvisation group.
‘The Revenge of the Grand Guignol’ is being hailed as ‘London’s Scariest Show’ (The Evening Standard). Armed with a companion, gin and tonic (the small, cosy bar in the Courtyard Theatre was a plus) and only the website’s trailer to feed (or, rather, gnaw away at) my imagination, I went in to see a Tuesday showing. The stage itself was not large by normal standards, but it definitely provided an uncomfortable intimacy between audience and actors that you couldn’t really escape from. This was why we didn’t sit in the front row; some of the braver audience members did.
The four plays shown in ‘The Revenge of the Grand Guignol’ were inspired by the original Parisian ‘Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol’, which was a tiny theatre in Pigalle that showed four or five naturalistic plays a night. These naturalistic plays would often reflect the horrors of psychosis and of the altered state; think nannies strangling babies, hags in an insane asylum blinding a pretty girl etc. It is due to this remarkable 20th Century theatre that we have splatter films and the entire Saw franchise.
The first one shown – The Laboratory Of Hallucinations– was written by André de Lorde, the ‘Prince of Fear’ himself back in the day, and was adapted by T.S. Richards and Stewart Pringle. The play starts off with a young, beautiful woman slamming a door and pacing around a tiny, badly wallpapered room (which reminded me of one of my favourite short stories, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper‘ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – also very creepy). She plays music to block out the distant screams and wails that are echoing all around her (and us). Then the doctor comes in and scolds her rather aggressively for ‘disturbing his work’. But what is his work, exactly? What procedures is he performing on his patients? Unfortunately, after the initial thrill of the eerie screams and the doctor’s sinister declarations of the importance of his ‘work’, the play dwindles and is all too predictable. Perhaps as a twenty first century viewer I have become all too exposed to this horror genre (and to plastic surgery makeover shows) and am thus desensitized to the idea of a long needle being poked in through the eye to reach the brain. I can imagine though, that in the 20th Century, these procedures were fairly experimental and new and would have terrified audiences to no end.
The second play played on my mind much, much more (so much that later on that night, in bed, I actually thought I heard someone singing downstairs. I live alone). As the scene changes we hear a repetitive little ditty being sung by a man somewhere off-stage. It’s neither major nor minor, but a little chromatic and definitely weird. As Ye Sow by Stewart Pringle (who turned out to be either sitting in the audience or waiting outside as he was wandering around the vicinity of the building after – perhaps noting down how many times the audience jumped?) started off as a little banal, a little chit-chatty and exactly like how all good horror films start out: uneventful. An old man in a retirement home is visited by his daughter, who sorts out the things in his room (the rotten fruit, the flowers, the picture of his missing wife) for him before handing him a few contracts to sign. ‘We’re not selling the house, Dad’, she assures him ‘just a bit of land’. Ah, but which bit of land? The old man point blank refuses to sign. This is where things start seem a little off. The lights flicker on and off erratically. A nurse enters the room and turns on Inspector Morse for him to watch on the TV – except it’s not Inspector Morse. It looks like a home video of a man digging a grave. I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say it definitely shook me up. At the same time it left me wanting more; I felt that this short play had so much explosive potential I could have watched another hour of it (take note, writers!). The most terrifying part was that no one else in the play seemed to notice or recognise that the old man was practically going mental trying to ignore the screeches and flickering lights. As Ye Sow is in part a horrifying glimpse into the mind of a senile outcast (who essentially is succumbing to childhood paranoias: monsters under the bed, things that go bump in the night) and in part a creepy story about something that keeps coming back – something you thought you had buried a long time ago.
A short break for the scene change and we were onto play three, ‘Hero‘ by T. S.Richards, inspired by André de Lorde‘s ‘Au Téléphone’. Revamped and adapted for the 21st Century, the play begins with a hungover uni student playing an Enrique Iglesias music video (‘Hero’, to be exact) on his projector. He sings along for a while, with great emotion, when suddenly he gets a Skype call from his girlfriend, Emma, who is on a teaching exchange programme in Russia. All is well, she tells him about the weather, the children, the strange sixteen year old rich boy who is in love with her. ‘Seriously, Emma,’ Max urges her before they get cut off, ‘do whatever he says. He could have connections’. We all know what that means. For the rest of the play I’m expecting the Russian Mafia to either come stampeding through the door or through the projector screen (not ruling out paranormal mob activity here, given the atmosphere of the last play). But that never happens. Instead, next, we discover that a) Max has been cheating on his girlfriend, b)said cheatee is sleeping in his bed and c) said cheatee is slightly sadistic and handcuffs him, attaches nipple chains to his chest and then turns on Skype so Emma can see Max in all his naked glory.
There’s no gore in this play, but what it lacks in fake blood it makes up for in shock factor. The story quickly takes a turn from typical adultery to something much more sinister as a third person steps into the Skype conversation all the way over in Russia. All the giggles and chuckles that were heard when Max was listening to ‘Hero’ have quieted.
The last play comes on – and it’s not a pretty one. Three women stand in front of their worktables in green scrubs and glinting round glasses. The aptly named ‘The Blind Woman’ by Stewart Pringle was inspired by Lucien Descaves’ ‘Atelier d’aveugles’. It’s clear they’re all blind; they fumble with their equipment parts awkwardly (they’re in a factory line) and whip their heads in all directions whenever they hear something. It’s their lucky day a a young girl, Ena (with fully functional eyes), is introduced to the factory to be their fourth worker. Ena is pretty and young, but desperate for work as she has to support her baby. Mary and Agnes nervously file and polish their parts as Greta stands by the whirring sander, an ominous figure in the dark factory. Oh, and it’s WWII. Slowly, we begin to realise that Greta holds some sort of grudge against everyone other than herself and the other two blind women, as she spits questions at Ena and asks her to guillotine a machinery part blindfolded. There’s an excruciatingly tense moment as all the lights go off the in the theatre – so the audience, too, is blindfolded – and someone screams out ‘watch out for your fingers!’ as the guillotine goes chop. It’s all fine, thankfully. Ena keeps her fingers. For now. As the play progresses though, we discover the horrifying origins behind the ‘Canary Girls’ title – the three women were blinded in a bomb factory which then also turned their skin yellow. Greta has no sympathy for young, pretty, unspoiled Ena. She’s in a factory full of functioning machinery, including a whirring sander which Ena helped fix just a mere ten minutes ago. I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out for you: it’s a truly gory, horrific ending.
It was a truly refreshing night.