Ghost Stories inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and M.R. James
CYD-GYNHYRCHIAD MAPPA MUNDI | THEATR MWLDAN CO-PRODUCTION
UK TOUR 25 September – 23 October 2015
“The spirits of the dead who stood in life before thee are again In death around thee—and their will shall overshadow….”
Edgar Allan Poe
Blending the ghost stories of renowned horror writers Edgar Allan Poe and MR James with their own slice of Victorian Gothic, Mappa Mundi return with tales to chill the soul.
Elements from Poe’s classic stories – the beating pulse of The Tell Tale Heart, the ghoulish clowning of Hop-Frog and the terror of The Raven and The Black Cat – together with celebrated ghost writer MR James’ ghoulish fables – A Warning to the Curious, The Mezzotint and Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad – form the basis of a compendium of terrifying tales.
These tales are linked by a Victorian photographer obsessed by death, with his own demons to exorcise come the strike of midnight. Full of haunting imagery from the Victorian era, Still Life is a celebration of 19th Century horror, given a deliciously dark Mappa Mundi twist.
Wrth asio straeon ysbrydion yr awduron arswyd enwog Edgar Allen Poe a MR James gyda’u hystyriaeth bersonol ar gothig oes Fictoria, mae Mappa Mundy yn dychwelyd gyda straeon i fferru’r enaid.
Mae elfennau o straeon clasurol Poe – curiad The Tell Tale Heart, clownio arswydus Hop-Frog a braw The Raven and The Black Cat – ynghyd â chwedlau afiach yr ysgrifennwr arswyd MR James – A Warning to the Curious, The Mezzotint and Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad – yn ffurfio sail crynodeb o storÏau dychrynllyd.
Caiff y straeon hyn eu cysylltu gan ffotograffydd oes Fictoria a chanddo obsesiwn â marwolaeth, gyda’i demoniaid ei hun i’w bwrw allan ar ganol nos. Yn llawn delweddau brawychus o oes Fictoria, mae Still Life yn ddathliad o arswyd y 19eg ganrif, gyda thriniaeth dywyll ddrygionus Mappa Mundi.
25 THEATR MWLDAN Cardigan / Aberteifi
26 THEATR MWLDAN Cardigan / Aberteifi
29 ROYAL WELSH COLLEGE OF MUSIC AND DRAMA Cardiff / Caerdydd
30 ROYAL WELSH COLLEGE OF MUSIC AND DRAMA Cardiff / Caerdydd
2 NEWBRIDGE MEMO, Newbridge / Trecelyn
3 NEWBRIDGE MEMO, Newbridge / Trecelyn
6 BOROUGH THEATRE Abergavenny / Y Feni
7 BOROUGH THEATRE Abergavenny / Y Feni
9 THE HAFREN Newtown / Y Drenewydd
10 THE HAFREN Newtown / Y Drenewydd
16 CANOLFAN Y CELFYDDYDAU TALIESIN ARTS CENTRE Swansea / Abertawe
17 CANOLFAN Y CELFYDDYDAU TALIESIN ARTS CENTRE Swansea / Abertawe
20 CANOLFAN Y CELFYDDYDAU ABERYSTWYTH ARTS CENTRE Aberystwyth
21 CANOLFAN Y CELFYDDYDAU ABERYSTWYTH ARTS CENTRE Aberystwyth
22 THEATR BRYCHEINIOG Brecon / Aberhonddu
23 THEATR BRYCHEINIOG Brecon / Aberhonddu
Creative Team / Y Tim Creadigol
Still Life has been developed by Mappa Mundi Theatre Company.
Producer/ Lighting Designer
Co-produced by Mappa Mundi and Theatr Mwldan, and developed with the support of the Arts Council of Wales and Newbridge Memo.
Press Reviews / Adolygiadau’r Wasg
‘The acting throughout was superb, and the production as a whole was a visual delight.’
The stage-set of Mappa Mundi’s Still Life is an exquisite art work in itself, and one that the audience could spend hours looking at without needing any other distraction. Every inch of available space is stuffed with sumptuous brocade furniture, intricately-framed paintings, gilt-edged mirrors and ornate lamps. It is how I imagine Edgar Allen Poe’s drawing room would have looked: an excess of gothic Victoriana. I wanted it all.
Theatr Mwldan have been successfully collaborating on critically acclaimed productions with Mappa Mundi for nearly a decade, each offering something to the partnership that enriches the final performance. Still Life is the latest co-production. It blends a number of ghost stories rooted in tales by classic horror writers Poe and M R James; each story threaded to the other by a single character who serves as both storyteller and active witness to the ghostly happenings as they unfold. By the last scene this figure, a photographer with a passion for recording death, has become fully immersed in the action: the main character in his own tale of horror.
This immersion is echoed in the framework of the production itself. The audience are addressed as though they are in a lecture hall, which lifts them from the usual passivity and warps the boundaries between the expectation of entertainment and what it is to be entertained. Eye contact is made, and direct appeals for judgement to be passed or withheld. The conceit: stories within a story, is cleverly conducted, and reflective of the Poe quote on the programme: ‘All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream.’
For enthusiasts of Victorian ghost stories each tableau will be familiar, and even without prior knowledge of the specific authors or their work the tropes of the genre are so well known that the only thing left to wonder over is exactly when the blood-curdling scream will echo around the theatre. It made me jump every time. That’s the joy of a good gothic ghost story; it doesn’t need to be new or original in order to please the audience. They already know what they’re in for and that’s why they’re there.
The first story was also the most visually confrontational; a murder, a crime of passion and rage, acted out so well that it was almost uncomfortable to watch. The subsequent haunting delivered the right amount of thrills, combining sound effects (a harp playing) with some deliciously jumpy moments. The dramatic tension was maintained through the next two stories and clever use was made of props and behind-the-scenes technology. A seemingly innocuous landscape painting is manipulated subtly throughout a story so that by the end the ghost looms at the very front of it. Suspended lamps start swinging by themselves. Even when a comic element is introduced there is an edge of the grotesque and the macabre. These characters are all trapped in their roles with no escape from their fate.
Through the final stories the focus shifts more onto the photographer and his increasing obsession with recording the moment of death. His beloved wife is sidelined by this greater preoccupation and as the production builds to its climax she becomes yet another ghost to haunt him. Fascinating though the details were around Memento Mori and the photographic advances of the era, the finale did prove ultimately underwhelming. It descended into the main character’s self-destruction and there was an overall tone of melancholy and helplessness which, after the energy of the first scenes, felt a little anti-climactic. It might have been better to end on a shiver of fear rather than of sorrow.
The acting throughout was superb, and the production as a whole was a visual delight. Every detail, from the huge mirror on the side of the stage that reflected the actors distorted through layers of grime, morphing them into ghoulish shapes, to the portrait photographs of Victorian families, which were possibly original Memento Mori themselves, was thoughtfully arranged to achieve maximum effect.
I came away from the evening with a different view of the gothic potential of the photographic image, and the narratives implicit within the photographer’s frame. For the Victorians, being able to capture their subjects with new technologies and pin them to paper sparked a passion that went beyond even the borders of the gravestone.Still Life is as much a meditation on this passion as it is an exercise in spooking an audience. Well worth seeing.
Reviewed by Carly Holmes at Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan, on 26 October 2015 for Wales Arts Review
Still Life, Mappa Mundi
by Mike Smith
Being not too far away from the ruined Margam Abbey, frequently visited by photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot, added another frisson of interest to Mappa Mundi Theatre’s spooky show Still Life with its central theme of capturing images of the living and dead.
One of the surviving photographs by Henry Fox Talbot, whose cousin owned Margam Abbey which was also frozen in time by the new scientific image-capturing innovation, is of his half-sister playing the harp. The fate of a beautiful young harpist photographed by the central character of this story of obsession told through ghost stories is the opening shivers-inducing tale. Spooky.
In fact, in that image is a smudge (or is it?). This features in another of the stories which our narrator wonders is the soul of the departed leaving the body of the dead person. With clever tricks that would have blown the socks off the early photographers that smudge develops into a screaming face. Even spookier.
I should imagine these are coincidences as Still Life, written by Keiron Self, is based on the imaginings of Edgar Allan Poe and M R James but they are in keeping with the play’s fusing of historical fact, the development of photography and the Victorian’s obsession with death, the after-life and, most creepily, the fashion for taking photographs of the recently departed (or even digging up not so recently departed to pose for the camera), Memento Mori.
The play starts and ends with the narrator and progresses into his relationship with his wife, and his growing obsession with not only photography but how it can be used to capture the soul as the person passes from life to death. Naturally, or should that be supernaturally, this obsession leads to not only macabre episodes including the murder of that harpist and a grizzly execution by electric chair but in his own life and that of his wife.
This is the latest collaboration between Mappa Mundi Theatre and Theatr Mwldan is directed with elegance by Lynne Seymour with lovely atmospheric music from Dyfan Jones and Peter Knight and lighting by Ceri James.
Designer Carl Davies gives us a beautifully gothic creation in itself as well as becoming literally part of the action, whether that being the vast gilt mirrors and frames – and even back wall – that become part of those scary stories and there are plenty of jumps for the audience. The Victorian drawing room/study of the narrator becomes the setting for the stories, one of the most effective being the theatre in which the mysterious Italian clown and his dumb comedic fall guy who curses the theatre owner with, yes, you’ve guest, it horrific consequences.
We are addressed by the narrator as if we are the audience of a quasi-scientific lecture interspersed by the ghost stories which are either biographical, tracing the narrator and his wife’s life, or case studies for the lecture.
Richard Nicholas and Lizzie Rogan are the backbone of the work as the photographer/narrator and his wife, Gwawr Loader, Francoise Pandolfo and Keiron Self take the wildly contrasting other roles from that nasty clown and victim fall guy and the exquisite harpist to a father punished for his lack of paternal care and enthusiastic tourist who pays the price for blowing the whistle on the past.
Reviewed by Mike Smith for Wales Arts Review at Taliesin, Swansea
Mappa Mundi Returns New and Fresh
By Adam Somerset
Still Life by Mappa Mundi/ Theatr Mwldan Mappa Mundi took a year of rest in 2014 from their regular cheering tour. With their established track record for irreverent retakes of old texts the company had already done something different in 2013. A modern dramatisation of a historical subject gave Francois Pandolfo the opportunity for a hugely juicy part. In 2015 the process has been taken a stage further with actor and company stalwart Keiron Self taking on the script. The result is a careful concoction with moments of genuine fright, a lavishness of set and costume and a densely textured sound design.
The subject of “the Compleat Female Stage Beauty”, the 2013 show, was an episode from the history of theatre. Theatre itself is a seam that runs through “Still Life.” Keiron Self and Francois Pandolfo, who displays his considerable circus skills, make a sinister clown pair who exercise vengeance on a producer (Gwawr Loader) who has dismissed them. A music hall fan (Gwawr Loader again) sings a favourite song from a dark spot behind the Aberystwyth audience. The narrator, also a character himself, (Richard Nichols) in frock coat and fob chain explains that we, the audience, are witnessing a narrative that is in itself an unfolding performance. The apparently innocuous title “Still Life” takes on deeper hues.
“Photography is a young art form” declares the photographer-narrator. Across the Atlantic George Eastman is on the cusp of making his industrial fortune. The technology is at the stage of “silver halide suspended in gelatin” declares adored wife, Lizzie Rogan’s Sarah. The narrator belongs to that generation of image-makers who aspired to the depth of paint. His first wish to paint like Millais was foiled because he could not grasp the complexity of the human hand. He has turned to camera and tripod as substitute for oil and canvas.
Keiron Self brings in themes of the era, among them the vogue for spiritualism. The photography starts with conventional portrait-recording of loved ones. But then the photographer finds himself gazing into his productions wondering- akin to the photographer-hero of Antonioni’s “Blow-Up”- whether he has not caught something unknown and disturbing. Carl Davies’ elaborate design has two large mirrors-cum-pictures at an askew angle. They are host, courtesy of ingenious back projection, to images of ambiguous and disturbing effect.
“Still Life” arrives at a pivotal time in the development of the industrial image. This month Christopher Nolan used the platform of the British Film Institute this season to argue for the artistic superiority of photo-chemical process over the pixellated simulacrum. Writers like Julian Barnes have returned to photography’s pioneers. Those billions of virtual images have turned out to be legally toxic. Corporations are obliged to run up huge legal costs in seeking to bridge the divergent jurisdictions of Europe and the USA. Above all the manufactured image has lost all claim to being truth. At the time of Don McCullin’s eightieth birthday there is an irony to the fact that front-line footage may now be dismissed as fabrication.
Formally “Still Life” links a series of stories rooted in Poe and M R James, and often given a local flavour. The victim in “the Tell-tale Heart” becomes an adept player of the Welsh harp. “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” incorporates a couple on honeymoon in West Wales. Lynne Seymour is at the directorial helm and creates some moments of authentic scariness. “Still Life” did what no other theatre has done in 2015. It provoked goose pimples that ran down both arms and legs.
The production also revisits a truly grisly episode from our not-so-far-back past. The obsession over images of a loved one has a long heritage. Sir Kenelm Digby spent hours in lone company with the image of his adored Venetia. But Van Dyck’s portrait is of a figure in sleep and that is beside the fact of the supreme artistry in its painting. But “Still Life” brings back the habit for the memento mori, the photographing of departed dead ones. The gruesome aspect to the modern sensibility is that the dead are not recreated in a pretence of sleep but harnessed and yoked into seated postures. “I wouldn’t go looking too far online” advises a company member after the show.
“Still Life” is itself a study in theatrical image, what it can and cannot achieve. The less embodiment there is the better it works. Professor Parkins and the person within the crumpled linen, as told in in James’ prose, scares. It scares because it is not actual but at a remove conveyed via a symbolic system, language. On stage, however, the sheet contains a body that is actual. Apprehension is in the item only half-glimpsed..
The subject of “Still Life” is image. Theatre has entered an intriguing relationship with cinema, at one end for source material- successfully with “Let the Right One In” also a story of ghosts, and least convincing when it seeks to mimic film. One sequence in “Still Life” tries to compete with cinema. An electrocution is performed on stage and Francois Pandolfo does it well. But as staging it runs right up images that have gone before. The electrocution of Cagney in “Angels with Dirty Faces” was all in the imagination and Fred McMurray’s death in “Double Indemnity” is the most famous scene in film history to be left on the cutting room floor. But “the Green Mile” did it and so famously and potently that any representation in theatre is fated to be its shadow.
“Still Life” marks a good development for Mappa Mundi. It has a structural strength in that it moves to a climax that fits perfectly. Like any skilled ending it makes what has gone before inevitable and inexorable. The stories within are, however, dependent on the narrator impelling their action. Characteristically, they comprise an initial situation with the switch to a spectral conclusion dependent on the telling rather than enactment. The first story makes a rapid switch from adoration to slaughter with little in between. But the pleasure to be had in the company’s return after the year of absence is considerable.
Morgan and West are consultants in magic. Once again Mwldan are co-producers, Dilwyn Davies and Ceri James taking producer credits.
Reviewed by Adam Somerset for Theatre In Wales website at Aberystwyth Arts Centre , 22 October 2015