Nov 2, 2007

Oh! The Horror...

le Grand-Guignol devient le théâtre de Montmartre. Il représente un quartier, ses habitants, son esprit’ (Guy Sabatier)

The Union Theatre has created a line-up of terror plays to coincide this most peculiarly ghoulish time of the year (because as if a night derived from a peculiar pagan ceremony where small children stalk the dark streets of our cities threatening innocent passers-by, we have a celebration of burning catholics to look forward to...), the foremost amongst them written by the terrifyingly prolific Mark Ravenhill, who clearly doesn't have enough to do writing the Guardian, collecting other people's awards, and being had for breakfast.

The Theatre have called this 'a festival of Horror and Grand Guignol' which is all well and good except that, as I have said before about Grand Guignol, I think they're rather missing the true spirit of it all; or at least, what I see as the very best things about it. See, the terror in Grand Guignol was not merely about the plays - there's a reason that the name of the theatre itself came to represent the whole genre.

As most people know, Pigalle is not a nice part of Paris. In the theatre's golden years between the wars, the audience exiting the Pigalle Metro would stumble out into the dark narrow streets, passing smokey, tempting doorways, salacious posters advertising the seedy, erotic cabaret of the Moulin Rouge and its like. Prostitutes and the other sinister hangers-on of the city's thriving sex-industry loitered on the dirty cobbles. In short, as Richard Hand and Michael Wilson argue, the streets around the theatre throbbed with the exact cocktail of the erotic and the dangerous that made a night at the Grand Guignol so alluring.

The theatre itself was situated at the end of a narrow cul-de-sac (a point of no return); squat and dark and threatening, it was a deconsecrated convent - again that peculiarly French combination of sex, religion and death. The audience, already tingling, would be ushered in to the auditorium, Paris' smallest, which was still filled with the remnants of its previous religious incarnation. Audiences in the boxes were trapped behind iron bars and in the ceiling of the convent, two giant angels stared down at the horrors before them. As if not atmospheric enough, the theatre's most famous master Max Maurey had a doctor on standby, rushing back and forth through the crowded grotty stalls, ensuring that the audience were medically prepared for the chilling experience awaiting them.

This was the true theatre of the Grand Guignol. A rich, disturbing combination of its seedy location, its perverted religious architecture and the brilliant theatrical flair of the theatre's director. The audience was titillated and terrified before it got anywhere near the plays, which were of course, written specifically for this unique venue (or site-specific, as we might have it today). A night out at the Grand Guignol was dark and tempting voyage into the unknown, a libidinous journey through the wrong district of Paris; full of sex and death, where even an old convent had become a temple to the cheap and gory and forbidden.

Now, as wonderful a place as the Union Theatre (and I genuinely do mean that - it is a fantastic little venue) its location, tucked away in a quiet part of Southwark, is about 400 years to late for that particular district to retain the needed atmosphere of lusty spookiness. And although the 'warm wood-burning stove... eclectic selection of furniture... and a wonderful, vibrant display of artwork' in the theatre's cafe bar is undoubtedly a delight the other 11 months of the year it does little to instigate the necessary sense of danger to elevate the horrors inside above the level of the cosily gruesome.

Indeed, as I said in the last past on the subject, and has been undoubtedly confirmed by their more recent show, The spirit of Grand Guignol is alive and kicking not at Terror 2007 but in the form of the now-much-lauded Punchdrunk.

In Faust last year, the audience arrived out in an unknown, daunting area of town. Heading out of a rundown tube station they ducked through a council estate, arriving finally at a derelict and abandoned looking warehouse, looming above them - already the geography of the city is working to their advantage before you even start the convoluted conveyor belt of characters, lifts and corridors that you are required to traverse before you arrive at anything approaching narrative.

The same is true, though to a lesser extent, in their more recent show - demonstrating that a showman's sense of the theatrical, and a commitment to creating a truly all-encompassing theatrical environment can elevate the silly melodramatics of gothic horror to something tinglingly macabre.

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