I must confess to never having heard of Warren Herbu before; a Perth based actor who trained at ECU and recently won a Best Actor award for a performance of The Tell-Tale Heart for London’s Act Provocateur Solo Festival – no mean feat I'm sure. So please excuse me while I wax lyrical for a moment about his talent. In this self-devised one man show, Herbu delivers one of the most committed performances I’ve seen in a long time. He was not afraid to completely give himself over to his performance, and not at any point did we see him think about he was doing, what was coming next, where he should be standing, if he was in the light - which is not easy in a one man show – he just was the character and we just did believe him.
Quest: a Tell-Tale of the Heart is an interesting piece of writing, based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Herbu has managed to weave some of Poe’s most recognisable poems and stories into self-devised dialogue that, on the whole, works very well. He’s managed to keep the gothic and fantastical nature of Poe’s style as well as injecting some recognizably modern characterizations and stories and a great deal of humour. (At one point I’m quite sure Herbu channels Captain Jack Sparrow.) Humour, horror, and suspense combined can easily be a recipe for disaster, but Herbu has managed to knit it all together very successfully.
The play begins unusually so I won’t spoil it for you, but what Herbu and the director, Brodie Caporn, have done here adds to the overall suspenseful and gothic feel to the piece: it was obvious from the outset that we were going to be in for a powerhouse of a performance. From this dark beginning it is made clear that we are there for the storytelling; to be titillated, surprised, and maybe even frightened.
Edgar lives in a haunted mansion, left with nothing but decaying walls and his disturbed memories of the past. When an angel appears and invites him to go on a quest, Edgar sets out on a journey that takes him across oceans and through forests, meeting some strange and fantastical creatures. Some of these adventures are real and some are imagined by a tortured Edgar; Herbu and Caporn leave the audience to make up their own mind and create their own connections in tying together some of the stories and poems.
Herbu’s performance is so well backed by an outstanding set, lighting and sound design that this really is a complete package of successful theatre. Too often at the Blue Room there seems to be a hesitation to get stuck into anything overly technical in terms of lighting and set design. Our pack of small independent companies often go for minimalism, but there is no holding back with Quest, and the entire production looks extremely professional.
Emma Caporn’s set design is fantastic. The stage is set into a corner, which gives the themes of insanity and loneliness a tangible depth as we see Edgar backed further and further into the recesses of his own madness. The set is moody and detailed and, except for a floor rug that is completely out of place, is well suited to the suggested time period. There’s a moment when there is a curtain billowing in the wind as the lighting dips to a ghostly hue, Herbu’s voice rising and falling like a man possessed, where the whole space is truly transformed. I must make mention also of Emma Caporn’s costume design, something I also often have a gripe about at the Blue Room; it’s simple and clever and perfectly suited to the period.
There are moments of brilliance in Karen Cook’s lighting design. The creation of an angel is extraordinary in its simplicity. As is the creation of the illusion that at one point Edgar is peering through a crack in a doorway. The lighting adds a great deal to the mood of the entire piece and is certainly the most sophisticated design I’ve seen at the Blue Room in a long time.
Elisa Siipola, a violinist and pianist studying at WAAPA, composed the music for Quest and plays live throughout the show. Her composition is to be commended; it’s both eerie and fun and, like the lighting and the set, adds a great deal to the mood of the play. The piece she plays during the increasing madness of Edgar towards the end of the Tell-Tale Heart piece is chilling. Herbu is writhing in a chair as he slips into a deep internal agony as he hears the ticking of the heart. Herbu could have easily overdone this, but he pares his performance right back and lets the tormented voice of the violin weave the story with him – it’s a great piece of performance by both Herbu and Siipola.
Herbu’s performance of The Raven is sublime. The pace, the mood; it’s all perfect. My only criticism of the show is that there are several moments of such heightened anguish, where Herbu holds nothing back in both his voice and body, that are a little too unannounced. At one such moment the audience was laughing nervously where laughter wasn’t entirely appropriate. Still, a response is a response and I doubt that either Herbu or Emma Capron would mind as long as there is one. This is perhaps the mark of an inexperienced director who just needed to give Herbu a little more direction here. In saying that, though, this is a fantastic directorial debut for Caporn.
This is a tight and evocative play that I hope will go on tour. It’s an absolute privilege to watch Herbu perform - this is one extremely talented actor to watch out for.
The Blue Room and X-RoaDS COLlectIVE present
Quest: a Tell-Tale of the Heart
Venue: The Blue Room Theatre, 53 James Street Northbridge
Dates: 20 August – 6 September
Times: 8pm Tuesday – Saturday
Tickets: Full $22 / Conc. $15
Blue Room Members: Full $18 / Conc. $12
Bookings: (08) 9227 7005 / www.blueroom.org.au