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Theatre Review: Hellscreen (Vault Festival, London)

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hellscreen

Jonny Woo (left) and Suzette Llewellyn (right). Photograph: Courtesy of the production

In A Nutshell

Hellscreen is a troubling black mirror held to pop culture, leaving you foxed, mocked, and strangely tense in this technologically adventurous show.

Overview

A has-been artist and his strange daughter live isolated from the society who chide them. But then a domineering patron comes along and sparks a violent muse within the artist. He wants to show people the horrors of the world they live in, by having them re-enact true crimes, that are then streamed across the internet. But as his fame grows, his works become more dangerous. What’s the ultimate price you can pay for creating your masterpiece? And what motive drives the benefactor’s involvement?

Adaptation

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Rachel Parish adapt and update Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s original short story. However, here they add a small splattering of supernatural as well as making it more relevant by criticising our worryingly shallow and insatiable appetite for shocks that have been desensitised through the advent of the the world wide web. Malcom and Parish’s intentions in adapting Hellscreen appear to be two-fold: to darkly satirise pop culture and art, whilst simultaneously distracting and foxing us with hints at something more otherworldly going on.

Hellscreen’s lambaste of our virtual inertia to the evils of the world and our seeming disownment of the liability of our actions (and inactions) isn’t exactly ground-breaking. For example, Charlie Brooker has been bleakly satirising similar themes for a while with shows such as Black Mirror. Hellscreen has some familiar tropes such as a moment where an audience member has to make a choice, and, oh-no, the person they’ve saved at the cost of others is someone rather deplorable.

In saying that, Malcolm and Parish have still used examples that are current enough to make you feel unsettled, even if it’s not exactly epiphanic, such as making references to the crimes behind Operation Yewtree and the current moral maze of the “war on terror”: you still come away a little ashamed though not rumbled, helped by a rather brutal and unrelenting direction of the violence depicted. Ultimately, what this does is brings a nice twist on the original narrative that gives the story a very contemporary resonance and drive. Even if you’re not shaken by the sinister autopsy of our society, it certainly helps stoke your curiosity in how it feeds into the climax the story is building too.

The supernatural element in Hellscreen is also a nice touch in that it adds a strange enigma that keeps you intrigued. The only irritation is that the super-nature is never really explained, and even at the end it remains as ambiguous as it was at the beginning. It adds an unexpected depth and confusion to the plot that keeps you always thinking how the eeriness of all these things are related to the rest of the show, meaning you’re always engaged and guessing.

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Suzette Llewellyn (left) and Vaness Schofield (right). Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Direction & Production

The production of Hellscreen is certainly the most impressive thing about the show, and certainly makes up for anything the text lacks, with an ingenious and adventurous use of technology, as well as direction that’s incredibly bold. Whilst it might not gel together too well or feel as slick as you’d expect it to be, it has a striking effect on creating a chilling atmosphere.

The traverse setting is used well by Parish, who also directs, in that the entire length of it is almost always used. Even though the main focus shifts along the catwalk constantly, there’s always something going on in the peripherals, such as projected images at either side of the performance area, or members of the cast twitching and prowling at the fringes. It knowingly mocks your limited line of sight, and you constantly never quite know where to look and what to focus on at any given point, never giving you the opportunity to relax or switch off.

Ana Ines Jabares Pita design for Hellscreen also gives an brilliant opportunities for creating an unfamiliar atmosphere too, with Susan Luciani’s video work being projected onto hanging strips of translucent perspex. It causes the light from the video to bounce off it back into the audience, as well a breaking up and distorting the images. Natasha Chivers’s lighting is also intentionally dark in places, meaning you can’t quite see what’s going on at times. Sound also plays an important part, with the slap of the perspex as cast members enter in and out of them creating an unnerving enough noise as it is, without the deafening volume of the sound effects.

One thing, however, is that Parish’s use of stylised physical theatre and song in Hellscreen is sometimes a little over-earnest to the point where it feels rather silly. But even then, you can’t help but think whether that this might be as purposeful and meticulous as everything else. It might feel naff in places, but it feeds into the strangeness of it all, creating a schizophrenic and unpredictable sense of play that feels less of a misstep and more of an oddball intent.

The result is that you’re always flummoxed by the show. You’re constantly aware of the production fidgeting around you and that it’s impossible to see a bigger, clearer picture of what’s exactly going on. It’s a wholly immersive result that means you’re always on edge and tense. Even with some of the more overt horror imagery, you’re never scared but always unsettled and disorientated as the production expertly enhances the already dark devices of Hellscreen’s narrative.

Cast

Queer performance artist Jonny Woo leads the cast of Hellscreen. Although better known for his campy and exuberant antics, he produces a completely unexpected and nerve-racking performance. He’s sneering and domineering at every point as the misanthropic artist. It gets to the point where you’re actually fearful of him making a bee-line for you in the audience, which he sometimes does, just so you can avoid having to face his bullying persona.

Suzette Llewellyn also gives an exceptional performance as the strange benefactor. She matches Woo’s dominance but most surprisingly can be unfathomably tender and sincere elsewhere. You can’t quite ever get the measure of her character adding to further confusion as to what in hell is actually going on.

Verdict

Hellscreen is a masterful and unrelenting engine that uses inspired stagecraft and direction to meticulously unsettle you in this already dark and dangerous narrative. There isn’t anywhere else where you’ll be aghast, unnerved, and foxed for 80 minutes with such deft precision.

Hellscreen plays at the Vault Festival, London, SE1 7NN until 8 March 2015. Tickets are £16.50. To book, visit www.vaultfestival.com.

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