Edgar Allen Poe is a writer beloved of goths everywhere. And as a former goth that is not less true of those of us who grow out of it and learn to embrace clothes that aren’t black or purple. We know his material and we love it. Treasure it’s dark embrace.
When material has not just admirers but fans, getting the interpretation right matters. It shouldn’t matter more than it would otherwise, but you know that people will not simply be disappointed but crushed. And with that crush comes vitriol.
In The Black Cat – starring and directed by Stephen Smith – this is not in much danger. From the opening where we are brought into a very spooky looking The Space (I swear I spotted a ghost on the stairs, but maybe I was just getting in the mood) to the tragic and terrible ending, the direction is flawless.
The energy of the piece is almost a one hander – great for Covid times – with Michaela Bennison playing a minor but significant role as the protagonist’s wife. But this is Smith’s show and he grasps it with both hands from the beginning.
If I had a critique it would be that the show took a while to settle into and really understand and use the online video format. There was a certain amount of unnecessary projection into the space from Smith at first which would probably have been essential in the theatre but on video was too much. Again there was an early mime sequence that I suspect I would have been charmed by in person but found a bit jarring on film. Especially so with hindsight as they production later employed some exceptionally good camera and lighting techniques that worked extremely well for the medium.
But all this soon settled down, and by the time that the protagonist’s debauchery was underway, the production was ready to come into its own.
The use of the camera to mirror the increasing and decreasing drunkenness of our focus was done very well. Never overplayed (as this technique can be) it was clear that we – or he (or both) – were staggering drunk, yet we could still see the action in focus. That’s a good trick to pull off and they did.
The use of the space (pun intended) was also very well done. It made for what would have been a very static show had we been watching it in the theatre kinetic and visceral. While there wasn’t much in the way of props, again the lighting and space were used to create an absolutely compelling vision of the house of the protagonist and the place of his descent into madness and cruelty.
Online theatre can be very hit and miss. If it’s literally a case of someone just pointing a camera at an existing stage production – count me out. But done like this, when the use of both space and medium have been thought through effectively it works. Don’t get me wrong – I want to get back into theatres as soon as possible. But until then, while we are being delivered art online – I hope it remains as imaginatively produced as The Black Cat.
The show ran from Tuesday 23rd – Friday 26th March More information can be found on The Space’s website: https://space.org.uk/