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By Andrew Clarke
, Arts Editor
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
They say that the human brain still provides the world’s best special effects. The power of suggestion can still conjure up more fear and suspense than the most expensive and elaborate digital Hollywood nightmares.
The best way to trigger our susceptible brains into dreaming up all sorts of imaginary horrors is to create creepy interiors, full of dark corners and long shadows.
This is certainly the approach that New Wolsey director Pete Rowe has taken for And Then The Dark, their first production of the new season.
It’s a suspense thriller, a contemporary drama that will summon up memories of classic film noir.
A lot of work was spent with Foxton, the designer, and Malcolm Rippeth, the lighting designer, to get the atmosphere exactly right before rehearsals began.
For Pete Rowe, the play is very difficult to talk about because it works best when an audience doesn’t know what is coming next.
“It’s all about keeping them on the edge of their seats. It’s making them wonder whether what they are seeing is real or whether it is all in the imagination of Edward, the focus of the play.”
And Then The Dark is another in the New Wolsey’s growing collection of prestigious firsts and whereas other premieres have all been either musicals or have had a strong musical content, this is the first pure drama.
It’s been written by playwright and screenwriter Michael Lesslie. Pete first met Michael a couple of years ago when he was approached to bring a director’s eye to the development of the play.
The piece has a wonderful filmic feel to it as the writer Michael adapted the film Swimming With Sharks for the stage and works a lot in film development.
Pete said: “I have had several very interesting discussions with Michael about the play. His writing of dialogue is really strong.”
Pete said that his role with this play again fell within the job description of a dramaturge – making sure that when the play finished everything made sense and all the plot holes were filled.
“It’s a thriller that inhabits a similar world as Gaslight and A Woman In Black. It’s set in a house in Shoreditch in the present. Up on the second floor, seven years ago, there had been a big fire in which a woman and a child had perished.
“The husband of the woman and father of the child has become a recluse in the room below. He is wracked with guilt because he thinks he was responsible for the fire. So what the writer Michael Lesslie has done is construct a wonderful thriller and a ghost story.
“A lot of the appeal of the play is that we are trying to work out whether what we are seeing on stage has actually taken place or are we witnessing a projection of the guilt and anxiety of the husband.
“The play plays with this whole notion of reality. The atmosphere is helped by a wonderful set and a lighting design which allows room for a lot of shadows. It’s set on a stormy night, so there will be wind blowing outside and rain lashing against the window. It will be really atmospheric. A figure eventually emerges from the shadows and audiences will be wondering if they are seeing things.”
He said that they are currently working to make the play a huge sensory experience for the audience which allow people to become really wrapped up with what is going on, on stage.
“The effects are going to be great. We are recruiting an illusionist onto the production team to supply some amazing visual effects.”
He said that the idea was to have the audience share the same experience as the central character.
“It’s important that although some red herrings are employed in the telling of the story by the time it finishes everything is water-tight.”
For the actors it’s a question of playing the roles for real. Even if they are part of an illusion or if everything is not as it first appears, it is important that they give no hint of this to the audience. Everything is presented straight.
Paul Ansdell plays the tormented Edward Alberly while Liza Sadovy is his sister-in-law Ruth Siding.
Liza said that the tone of the play is very much of a psychological thriller rather than a who-dunnit.
“It’s more than a detective thriller. It hasn’t got the simplicity of an Agatha Christie or something like that. It’s very much like the Nicole Kidman film The Others – full of suspense and you are not sure until the end who is who and what is what.”
Paul said that part of the fun of the show for the audience was trying to piece together the elements of the story as the play develops.
“We hope that the audience feels as if they are in this room with Edward. We hope that they will be trying to guess what is going on right through the play. You do get little hints and pointers as you go along but it will be interesting to see if anyone puts it all together before the end.
“The basic premise is easy to pick up. Edward has been living as a recluse since his wife and child supposedly died in that terrible fire. Then on the anniversary of their death, his former sister-in-law and her new husband turn up. No-one really knows why they are there. What do they want?”
Liz said it was difficult to give any more away because it would ruin the audience’s enjoyment of the show. “There’s a lot which is implied. There’s clues just slipped into the dialogue which people may or may not pick up on. That’s why the writing is so brilliant.
“No-one is necessarily who they seem and people’s perception of the characters may change once or twice during the course of the evening.”
Pete said that he would be thrilled if the bar was a buzz of animated conversations during the interval as people swapped ideas and theories about what was going on. “It’s that sort of show. It will have people talking. It will have them on the edge of their seat. It’s a hugely enjoyable story because it is so intriguing.”
He said that it will also supply a few shocks and surprises along the way. “There may be a few gasps or a few moments when people jump but I can’t say more than that,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye.
The audience are very much enveloped by the action. Atmosphere plays a huge role in the production. Light and sound design are very much key elements in establishing the atmosphere.
Pete said that he wants the audience drawn in and the sound effects have been designed to come from around the auditorium rather than just off- stage.
“The audience is very much in the heart of everything.”
Time and again the conversation returns to the need for the actors to play roles innocently as they term it. Paul said: “It’s a classic case of being ‘in the moment’. Obviously because we’ve read the play, we’ve rehearsed it we know the ending, we know who’s who and what’s what but you can’t play the end first.
“You can’t play the role as the person they are finally revealed to be or you will give the game away. You have to play it as who they appear to be.
“The script is very good because it’s written like that. Unless you skip ahead to the end, you can’t tell – or not easily.”
Pete said one of the fun aspects for an actor is playing a character who is also playing a role within the play. “It’s fun watching the mask slip and seeing if the audience notices.”
Liza said that in order for that to work properly then an actor has to know everything about the character and what their agenda is. “You don’t necessarily have to let to show on stage but you have to do what’s what in your head – just so you can get it right.”
She said that during the course of the story she expects the allegiance and the sympathies of the audience to shift. “Michael is such a great writer that he drip feeds information during the play and that affects the way that the audience not only see characters but it also affects their interpretation of events.
“It’s telling how we view people once we get a little bit more information. Suddenly people are viewed as cold and heartless. We are told a little bit more and suddenly people who were previously callous villains are now misunderstood saints. It doesn’t pay to jump to conclusions.”
For Pete it’s a fascinating exercise in dealing with audience perceptions and directing a show in a way that allows good writing to come to the fore – which usually means keeping things simple and in this case concentrating on building up the suspense and playing with the psychological elements.
“Edward, the central character, is very much the key. “There is a bit about understanding the events of the past – who did what to who, when but there is also a lot of pressure on Edward. His mind is not sure what it is seeing. He can’t tell what is real, what is invented, what may be a visitation by a ghost – and all those things are in play throughout the evening.
“And, for us as an audience we are never entirely sure what we are seeing is real or just a projection of what is going on inside his head. People are going to have a lot of fun with this.”
n And Then The Dark runs at the New Wolsey Theatre until March 2 2013.