Visually sumptuous

Hannah Fair and Marsha Vinogradova 2 November 2007

Journalist Paul Arendt once remarked that “nobody does Berkoff except for students and Berkoff.” It’s pretty obvious what attracts student theatre to Berkoff’s work: the provocatively abstract, the physically impressive and the conceitedly adventurous. A director may feel that a Berkoff play allows for infinite stylistic exploration and ingenuity. And director Marieke Audsley certainly cashes in on the opportunity, incorporating impressive physical theatre in what is a visually demanding show. This adaptation of a short story by Edgar Allan Poe is a demented gothic horror full of anguish, smoke and cravats.

There is no way any reviewer can deny HATS the credit they deserve. Immaculately executed, this production was a sensual feast. Almas Daud and Katie Nairne’s picturesque and interactive set, beautiful lighting from David Mack and some great original music by David Isaacs all contributed to a commendable technical achievement. Controlled and perfectly focused performances from the entire cast are hard to come by in student theatre, yet made this production the slickest this term. Special mention is due for David Brown, who throws himself with formidable force into the role of tormented ‘Roderick Usher’.

But there’s a reason that Berkoff is such student bait. If you’ve ever seen Greek, East, West or anything else for that matter, you will find little here that you haven’t encountered before. The terrible truth is that you can’t do Berkoff without tense physical contortions, incest and a white sheet – all in abundance in this production. There is little of value in this material. There’s not much plot, and that which there is moves slowly and predictably. The novelty of the fancy dialogue wears off very quickly and becomes pretentious. You come to realise that the dramaturge is stretching and straining so that each second of the work is effective. Consequently the performance attempts ultimate visual effectiveness, but it doesn’t really make you feel anything. And more importantly, fairly early on, the innovative effects are exhausted and start to be simply repeated: carrying around catatonic bodies or playing with empty picture frames is exciting the first time, but dull by the seventeenth.

If you’re a big Berkoff buff, you will love this perfectly executed production. If you’ve never seen a Berrkoff play staged, you’ll be impressed for the first twenty minutes. If you are neither – prepare to be embarrassed at finding yourself as bored stiff as ‘Madelaine’s’ cataleptic body, despite the fact that this is a very accomplished production.

Hannah Fair and Marsha Vinogradova