Review: The Pit & The Pendulum
Image: Omnibus Theatre
A political prisoner wakes in a pitch-black cell, unable to see what terror hides in the darkness.
As tension and fear escalate, the chances of survival grow slim.
Performed by just one actor with innovative binaural sound design, comes this new adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale from award-winning Creation Theatre Company.
An exploration of sensory deprivation and isolation in a near pitch black room this promises to be a fully immersive experience like no other, using AV projection and wireless headphones.
Creation Theatre Company return to Omnibus Theatre following their riotous, smash-hit production of A Midsummer Night's Dream last summer (a finalist for the Off-West End Award for Best Theatre for Young People 2017).
Creation have been producing site-specific productions across Oxfordshire for 22 years, bringing anarchic adaptations of classic stories to unusual venues.
The Pit and the Pendulum has been adapted by Christopher York, a recipient of the High Tide First Commissions Award and a member of Old Vic 12 Shortlist 2016.
The day I caught this show was a special day for Omnibus Theatre as it was celebrating its 5th birthday.
Multi-award winning actor Bill Nighy not only cut the rather substantial birthday cake but was also in conversation with The Guardian's features writer and reviewer, Miranda Sawyer.
And the venue's newest and famous patron, Dame Judi Dench, gave a special birthday message to the audience.
The birthday bash comprised a day filled with interactive installations, shows and exhibitions that celebrated the theatre's progress and industry-wide support.
I missed the earlier events, but caught this one hour showing of Creation Theatre's The Pit & The Pendulum, adapted and directed by Christopher York from the story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published way back in 1842.
There's a technological approach to this work which involves the audience wearing headphones to listen to the audio element of the play.
That requirement involves a little organisation before the start of the show, but nothing unduly demanding.
It's not, at least in my experience, a unique method of transmitting a show's sound to the audience - I experienced a similar production at Battersea Arts Centre a while ago, which also involved the audience sitting in complete and total darkness for the duration which proved highly effective.
Though there are times here when the lighting is dim, we don't sit in complete darkness since there are lighting effects and projections which, unfortunately, I couldn't see from my seat.
Christopher York brings Poe's story up-to-date by setting the work in what seems to be present-day Iran.
The prisoner we observe is an intelligent, brave and quick-witted young woman who is also a mother.
She appears to have been incarcerated for her outspoken views and opinions - for example, we hear her observations about female genitalia which her teacher says is not an acceptable subject for open discussion in her society.
Even if the wearing of headphones is not a particular inconvenience, there has to be significant payoff for the audience in terms of what they obtain from the play to justify the device.
Poe's original work does focus on the senses, so the use of headphones to augment, intensify or personalise sounds and the narrative seems logical and appropriately intriguing.
But the ultimate success of the device - and the drama as a whole - rests on the play's overall objectives.
The intention could be to allow us to experience the sheer terror of imprisonment and torture.
Alternatively, the aim may be to highlight the efficacy of individual resistance and how that can be sustained over a prolonged period of increasingly intense torture.
But the play's real focus is unclear and the overwhelming impression is that the use of audio-visual technology is driving the play rather than the other way round.
There's little in the way of real fear generated either through action or the concentrated sound, which lacks significant novel features that might make the piece more disturbing and unsettling.
Moreover, wearing headphones has the disadvantage that we feel somewhat detached from the character and her predicament, rather than enhancing our understanding of her situation.
Afsaneh Dehrouyeh's prisoner does seem able, at least to some extent, to resist her tormentors' efforts, sometimes brushing them aside with contemptuous remarks, and making odd references to films like Star Wars.
That of itself may have the effect of reducing the impact of both the prison setting and the effectiveness of the audio delivery system.
The basic concept of analysing a woman's experiences of imprisonment and torture in an oppressive society in the modern world is certainly an important and urgent theme that needs to be heard and treated dramatically.
But the lack of clarity in what this play is trying to convey and how it is trying to achieve it, left me feeling largely unmoved, and generated merely a lukewarm response from the audience as a whole.
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ActDrop listing for Omnibus Theatre
Our show listing for The Pit & The Pendulum
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