Wednesday, March 4, 2015

'The Collector' at The Space, 4th March 2015

The Collector is grim, creepy as all hell and a total downer. It's upsettingly good. Based on the novel of the same name by John Fowles, the play takes us gently by the hand and leads us down into the claustrophobic cellar of Frederick Clegg. It's here, hemmed in by four dingy walls, some ratty furniture, a couple of books and foul-smelling food, that we spend the next two hours, growing as frantic as a rat in a trap.

Clegg (Benjamin Victor) is a mild-mannered, introverted and polite man. Sexually and emotionally repressed he picks his way quietly through a life free of controversial opinions, political views or cultural adventurousness. His one passion is entomology; specifically collecting drawers of pinned and mounted butterflies. Were it not for an unexpected lottery win he'd trundle through an unremarkable life and into a quickly forgotten grave.

But now he's a millionaire. Clegg gradually comes to the realisation that he can do whatever he wants, and so his darkest fantasies become reality. Since a chance encounter he's become transfixed with art student Miranda (Amy Gardyne). From afar he observes her beauty and her metropolitan social circle, torn up with the knowledge that he could never fit into it. But with money comes power, confidence and means. 

Turning his cellar into a prison cell, Clegg chloroforms Miranda, locking her up as his prisoner/pet/specimen. She frantically tries to escape but is foiled at every turn. From then, captive and captor dance around each other, each trying to manipulate the other as they battle their fears, obsessions, desires and phobias.

First things first, The Collector is not a fun, happy night out at the theatre. Though not unrelentingly grim (the audience nervously giggles a bit) the tonal needle is stuck firmly at the dark end of the theatrical scale. While watching it's impossible not to recall the case of Josef Fritzl and Ariel Castro. That reality gives rise to feelings of nausea as we apply their stories to this fictional situation, our dramatic proximity to events giving us a mild, but still visceral, simulation of what it's like to be the plaything of a sociopath.

And boy, what a sociopath. Benjamin Victor's Clegg might just be the single most unpleasant character I've encountered in theatre to date. A large portion of this is down to simple physicality. Victor, at least in character, is a funny-lookin' guy. The sharp angles of his head combine to give him an insectile androgyny, his face equally masculine, feminine and strangely child-like. With a receding hairline his bulbous forehead dominates, working to amplify every moment of confusion and anger that ripples across it. His mouth communicates volumes as to what's going on inside his head; curling into instinctive smiles as he struggles to process emotion, every brief exposure of his teeth making him look less man than predator.

Most horrifying are his eyes. There are moments in the play where the atmosphere shifts, be it where Clegg realises his captive has 'betrayed' him, or when she behaves in a way he considers unfitting of her. Here, his eyes become dull and sharklike before our eyes, visibly draining of emotion as the bulge from his skull. This is seriously unnerving to witness, sending goosebump prickles up and down my back from my seat in the front row.

All that combines to make a character that instinctively disgusts and angers. I found myself trying my best to maintain some intellectual distance from the play, but I couldn't help myself getting furious at his passive aggressive demeanour, feeling the mildly worrying urge to climb on stage and bash him with a chair. This is, by any metric, the sign of a great villainous performance - one that was so affecting I found myself uncomfortable about even applauding the actor at the end.  

Next to this, Amy Gardyne is slightly eclipsed, but only slightly. Miranda is a complex character, both the subject of audience sympathy and frustration. We can't help but place ourself in her shoes - resulting in several overheard conversations after the play wondering why she didn't do x, y and z to escape. It's missing the point to theorise like this, but even so you feel an unfair twinge of disappointment in her as yet another escape plan fails.

Crucially, Gardyne succeeds in portraying open and concealed terror. She's equally affecting when she screams, cries and struggles as when she's coldly trying her best to manipulate Clegg. As events progress, Gardyne disturbingly warps Miranda, leaving us unsure as to whether she's smartly trying to play the role Clegg desires, succumbing to Stockholm Syndrome or straight-up losing her mind.

By any metric this is a damn good bit of theatre. It's doubly astonishing that this is the professional directing debut of Lotte Ruth-Johnson. Obvious care and control has been applied to every aspect of staging, from the projected photos that drag us into the world, the books Clegg supplies to Miranda, right through to the sickly smell of the cheap tinned soup that passes for food.  

I can't honestly say I had fun at The Collector. Rather, it repelled and unnerved me. Perhaps the highest praise I can give is that last night I had a nightmare involving elements of the production. If a piece of theatre can worm its way into my head that effectively it's doing a hell of a lot right.


The Collector is at The Space until 14th March. Tickets here.

All photos by Jolanta Pilinkaite

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