views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Blind/The Intruder
The Old Red Lion Theatre
20th April 2013


The ensemble in The Intruder

Photography © Peter Langdown

Symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck certainly isn't a big-name writer to draw the interest of London theatre-goers. Despite being a contemporary of Rimbauld and a forerunner to the likes of Samuel Beckett, it's a fair bet that, unlike Godot, he's not going to attract A-list celebrities and pack out West End venues. But perhaps that's for the best, because when you do stumble across a gem of a production - such as Tarquin Productions' double-header of The Blind and The Intruder, it makes it all the more special.

Thematically linked by the subject of blindness, the plays explore powerlessness, mystery and the unknown, both insidious and within as in The Intruder, and immediate and without, the focus of The Blind. Director Benji Sperring is clear that he won't let the similarities go too far, crafting two very different, complementary pieces. But one thing is true for both - he has stuck fast to the spirit of symbolism, aided wonderfully by designer Jacob Hughes. Both sets are wildly different, but are rich with riddles, questions and allegories to nudge the viewer to read between the lines and provoke serious questions.

The first, The Intruder, sees a family wait for a Sister of Mercy to arrive to tend to an ill mother who has recently given birth. As things become more tense for The Father (Darren Beaumont), the blind Grandfather (John Canmore) is convinced someone, or something, has entered the house. It's a slow-burner styled in the vein of classic Gothic horror or the best Hammer pictures, but that only works to its advantage. While there's very deliberate silence, the audience can ruminate on the significance of every detail. Are the playing cards an allusion to fate, as the tarot, or chance, as the gambler would have it? What purpose the walls and walls of books?

For their part, the cast are strong. Beaumont's voice is suitably eerie and he's very believable as a put-upon, frustrated and worried father. Canmore's Grandfather is in turns frustrating and sympathetic while support, primarily from Gina Abolins as Ursula, is great. While certainly more "traditional" than the subsequent (and arguably even stronger) The Blind, that almost makes it worse for the actors. Weirdly, there seems to be more for them to get their teeth into in playing personifications of concepts rather than, as stated, some more archetypical characters in a haunted house tale with a philosophical bent.

The ensemble in The Blind

Photography © Peter Langdown

The Blind, then, sees eight - unsurprisingly blind - people lost in a forest after their priest carer abandons them during a day trip from an asylum. In one translation of the original, Maeterlinck calls for "a very ancient forest... stones, the stumps of trees and dead leaves". Here, Sperring and Hughes have translated that into leaves of a book, the whole floor covered with torn pages, a blackly humorous mocking and extension of Maeterlinck's metaphor of blindness as the human condition. Strip lights flash intermittently overhead, lighting what's more of a post-apocalyptic wasteland than a forest. But all of these changes add to, rather than take away from, the writer's work.

The eight then bicker, attempt to discover their whereabouts and resolve their situation which, much like Godot, is an ultimately futile task. Here the cast seem to relish their roles, with the graceful Abolins playing the Romantic with light measured gestures, preening and posing. Rupert Baldwin's Fantasist provides a rare bit of levity, but even that is shot through with wicked irony and knowing. It's a great showing from the entire ensemble, though, and to list and congratulate them individually would take up more space than I have.

It seems obvious to say that works of art produced during the symbolist movement require a fair bit of thought on the parts of the company and the audience - the same as postmodernism requires a layer of knowing irony but sincere self-congratulation. But if you're willing to put the work in, because Tarquin Productions certainly have, you'll be rewarded with some interesting and surprisingly refreshing theatre.

The Blind/The Intruder ran from 2nd to 27th April 2013 at the Old Red Lion.

Nearest tube station: Angel (Northern)

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