Saturday, February 28, 2015

'Hellscreen' at Vault Festival 2015, 27th February 2015

"As I enter this place, I am conscious of the present moment. I am responsible for my own actions. I make my own decisions. Anything I choose to do, I do so freely." 
Having to sign a disclaimer like this is a promising omen. The air hangs thick and heavy in damp brickwork of the passages under Waterloo Station, disturbed only by the ominous rumble of overhead trains. What on earth are we to find beyond the sheet metal doors of the 'Cavern' performance space? 

For all that I enjoy theatre, I've never been remotely scared by a play. I've laughed, cried and gotten angry - but never been truly frightened. It's not that I'm particularly brave - a suspenseful horror film can give me a bad case of creeps - but the artifice of theatre stops that fight-or-flight instinct kicking in. Even so I've always been on the look-out for that one show that'd scare the pants off me, leaving me a quivering, sobbing wreck of a man.  Hellscreen, by Firehouse Creative and double barrel productions, looked like a promising candidate for doing just that. Described as "sensual, exciting and terrifying", the show promised to marry theatrical intensity, cinematic sequences and participatory thrills. 

Adapted from a 1918 Japanese horror story by Ryunosake Akutagawa, the show takes the basics and updates them for the modern day. The original story told the tale of 'the greatest artist in the land'. He's commissioned by a patron to create a vision of the Buddhist Hell. To achieve verisimilitude he begins to inflict tortures on his apprentices. Spiralling downwards to depravity, the artist commits a series of atrocities in an attempt to create an true artistic facsimile of hell.

Hellscreen sticks fairly close to this premise, yet  updates it to a contemporary setting. The talented artist is reimagined as intense former YBA Frank Holt (Jonny Woo). An enfant terrible, he furiously opposes all forms of cultural triviality, bourgeois quibbling and blind consumerism. As we meet him he's engaged in an unsatisfying series of works in which he paints paintings of celebrities using his own excrement.

But when a mysterious patron (Suzette Llewelyn) offers him unlimited resources to realise his dream of peeling back the carapace of the world to expose the writhing filth beneath he jumps at the chance. His genius idea is to take court transcripts of gruesome crimes and re-enact them with documentary precision; streaming the productions on the internet. Through gore, pain and humiliation he intends to vindicate and spread his nihilistic worldview with the intention of leading society, via misery, towards an aesthetic honesty.

Holt's only bulwark against going completely off the deep end is his daughter Amy (Vanessa Schofield. An intrinsically good person, she finds her father's gradual slide into sadism disturbing. Though she tries to help she's stymied in her efforts by the increasing diabolical patron, who confines her to an offshore artist's workshop to develop her performance skills.

Hellscreen is never less than fascinating, particularly in the subtly provocative staging. Using the traverse style, the space is bookended by two abattoir-like screens of hanging plastic curtains To enter we must push our way through them, take a plastic stool from the stage and decide where we want to place it. Once we're seated the audience faces itself, the narrow room all but forcing us to observe the reactions and body language of our fellow audience members as much as the on-stage action. All of this quietly serves to implicate us in what we're to see; we must choose to force our way into the space through the curtain, choose our own spot to sit and then silently judge one another.

During the performance the audience's involvement becomes more explicit. Throughout, the performers constantly make eye contact with us, ask us questions, sit directly in front of us miming actions or simply give intense performances mere inches away. This all comes to a head in the crime sequences, where the audience is asked to push a button to drop a bomb on a house, or confronted by a torture victim and asked why we're not stepping in.

I enjoy shows that purposefully set out to make the audience uncomfortable; there's a masochistic part of me that enjoys that uncomfortable curl in your gut, the slight guilt and worry that you're not behaving as you should. But what's the purpose of all this provocation? 

With Hellscreen's preoccupation with graphic torture, decapitations and immolations, all streamed online to a self-hating public, there's obvious echoes of the execution videos of ISIS. I'm not entirely sure whether the similarities of ISIS' recent high-profile murders are fortuitous coincidences or not, but the shared iconography can't be denied. Thing is, I'm not sure what exactly what's being said about them. 

There's a whiff of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror in the way Hellscreen identifies contemporary trends and takes them to their logical conclusion - presenting us with an outrageous world yet one that's grown organically from our own. But, ultimately, the easily accessible real life horror show of a caged man being burned to death can only trump Hellscreen's fictional imagination. 

I can't really criticise the show for being overtaken by reality, how could any playwright foresee the videos periodically emerging from Syria and Iraq? Yet it has, draining some (but not all) of the horror from the final scenes.  If the message of Hellscreen is that we should be condemned for our attraction to sadistic violence, then (right though they are) it's a bit of an obvious observation. Similarly, if the show is a more targeted condemnation of those who choose to stream ISIS' videos then it becomes a bit vague - unable to answer whether merely observing an online atrocity implicates us.  

This confusion aside, there's a hell of a lot to admire here; from the inherent tension to every facet of Jonny Woo's performance, his papery skin stretched tight over his skull and fists clenched, to the eerily insectile costuming and demeanour of Suzette Llewellyn, to the one bright spot of innocence we find in Vanessa Schofield's singing.

My search for a truly terrifying piece of theatre continues: Hellscreen leaving me ethically uncomfortable rather than cowering in pants-shitting terror. But this is a deeply effective production, one that's constantly finding new ways to toy with the audience and provoke a response from us. In a world of fluffy theatrical trivialities it cuts a distinctive, solitary figure -  one well worth checking out.


Hellscreen is at the Vault Festival until 8th March. Tickets and details here.

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