Come closer, dear reader, for I have a confession to make. Recently a certain Nick Ravenswood approached me with a request that I attend the latest theatrical offering from his theatre group The Laudanum Project. Unaware of the nature of their creations, I did my research before agreeing to accept this intriguing offer. What my research uncovered was so hideously fearsome, so vile and demented, so soaked in filth and depravity that I feared for my sanity. Hearing stories of audience members cracking under the weight of such dark horrors presented to them on stage, I feared that I might become one such victim, for I come from the world of light and fluff, lacking the mettle to withstand the onslaught of such a traumatic tale.
In short, at this stage, I declined the offer to review... but so intrigued was I by what drove these creative spirits to create such stories of mayhem that I did bravely agree to chat to Mr Ravenswood. This conversation is the result... but be warned, you may squirm uncomfortably in parts...
Let's start out with a pretty pedestrian question... who are the members of The Laudanum Project and what are their roles in the group?
Robyn Womersley/Lady Sophronia Lick-Penny – Keyboards
Nick Ravenswood/Alphonse Cheese-Probert – The Storyteller
What's with the alter-egos?
They’re not really alter-egos any more. I think to a certain extent we’ve had to allow these characters to take over. Nick and Robyn have to cease to exist so these stories can be told to their maximum effect. For the hour and twenty minutes that Alphonse and Sophronia are on stage their world has to be all encompassing. Most nights it’s a case of Nick and Robyn don’t live here any more.
From what I've seen, it's some of the weirdest stuff ever. How did you all realise you were into the same kind of weird stuff?
I think Robyn and myself found out pretty early on that we shared a mutual passion for pressing peoples buttons and seeing how far an audience are willing to let you take them. When I first presented Robyn with the Ballad Of The Plague Doctor script she wasn’t phased in the slightest. She read it, scribbled all over it and got straight down to work. We are talking about a script that was 53 pages on its first draft and was stuffed full of murder, incest, rats, ravens and screaming psychosis. I guess weird is where you find it.
This is what, your third production now? Have audience numbers increased with each show?
Sure. It’s all been a case of one step at a time. The Laudanum Project’s shows are not particularly easy pills to swallow so we were never going to explode onto any scene so to speak. In lots of ways we don’t fit anywhere so building an audience has been a dense and intricate process. Kind of like the shows. I think from our second show, The Penny-Toy Man there has been a really marked increase in not just audience attendance but in overall reactions. People are starting to ‘get us.’ Not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing.
What kind of audiences do your shows attract?
Strangely enough it seems to be people of a fairly nervous disposition. Why you would go to a Laudanum show if you were easily upset is kind of beyond me but there it is. I suppose it can end up being a bit of a release for some. We also tend to attract bookish types and people who appreciate language. The qualities and reactions of a typical Laudanum audience are usually awkward giggles, shouts of disgust, groans of disbelief all followed by deathly silence. What’s not to like?
Where did the idea for staging Ballad Of The Plague Doctor come from?
Our first show, The Terrible Account Of The St Fiacrius Orphans was set in 1863 and our second, The Penny-Toy Man was set in 1884. I was very eager to move away from the Victorian era for the third one and go back even further to medieval London. Additionally, Orphans was set inside a Victorian workhouse while Toy Man took place outside in the streets of the East End. With Ballad Of The Plague Doctor I wanted to spend much more time in the central character’s head. There was an ambiguity that I wanted to play with when it came to his inner wounds and the voices he hears. By using plague ridden London as a backdrop for his psychosis the potential to paint some really affecting images became huge. Never let it be said we shy away from adding insult to injury.
You have musical backgrounds, I believe. Is there music in this show? If so, what kind?
I’ve played and sung in bands before but Robyn is the real musical brain in The Laudanum Project. She is classically trained, she teaches and plays in many big commercial musicals around Melbourne. She’s amazing. The music in the shows is just as important as the words. Because the music functions as a ‘soundtrack’ the overall effect is oddly cinematic. After a show it’s not unusual for audience members to think they’ve seen something occur on-stage that, in reality, actually happened in their own heads. The music changes pretty significantly for each show, Orphans had huge piano flourishes throughout that gave everything a lovely 1970’s Italian horror movie feel. In The Penny-Toy Man we used lots of barrel organ and calliope sounds to get a very definite flavour of the Victorian East End. With Plague Doctor we wanted to keep the sounds and music mournful and sombre so there are a lot of sounds like dulcimer, organ and strings.
Light and fluffy aren't two words that leap to mind when reading about this performance. What are some words you would use to describe it?
Meaty, florid, dense, difficult, insidious, funny, extreme, traumatic and beautiful.
Can you tell us a little about the show?
Set in 1348, Ballad Of The Plague Doctor is the story of Dr. Marrok Corvus Rapere, London’s first community Plague Doctor. Due to brutal childhood traumas the homicidal yet astonishingly gifted Rapere retreats into an internal world populated by the 7 archangels of Heaven who steer his every move. When the Black Death arrives in London the angels decide that Rapere must use the opportunity to launch a grand scheme that will keep the Plague within London’s walls and ensure Rapere’s ‘special duties’ continue. Forever. The story is recounted by Alpohonse Cheese-Probert with underscoring by Lady Sophronia Lick-Penny.
I believe you've had people flee theatres in fright during your past productions. Do you expect similar reactions with Plague Doctor?
It’s hard to say. Plague Doctor is certainly our most confronting piece of work to date so it wouldn’t surprise me but so far (after only 4 shows) people have been very well behaved and conducted themselves as Ladies and Gentlemen of culture.
What's your most desired audience reaction?
Awkward silences and uncomfortable squirmings.
I read a review of the last performance of Plague Doctor which said the reviewer was left feeling slightly traumatised for days. Does that make you happy?
If people are going to take away a little slice of The Laudanum Project and let it nest in their minds for a few days after the event then I can only be happy about that. I mean, if a story can have a life span beyond the telling then that’s got to be a good thing. Right?
Is this pretty much the same production as last time or have you tweaked elements of it?
It’s pretty much the same except this time we’ll have a bit more set.
Why don't you make nice, happy theatre? Fluffy theatre? Theatre that warms the cockles of the heart?
It depends on your outlook. I think all of our shows have cockle-warming elements to them. Of course, what warms my cockles may not work for the next person. If you come to Ballad Of The Plague Doctor wanting to gain an insight into the human condition you’ll find it, you need only look.
Do any of you have Nannas? What do your Nannas think of what you do?
My Nanna is dead. If she were around I think she’d like it though. Come to think of it there is a large part of my Nanna in Alphonse. Make of that what you will.
Your Facebook page contains some of the creepiest photos I've seen... proper creepy. Yet I also sense that there is some humour at play in your work. Am I completely off the mark here?
No you’re spot on. It’s important to have a laugh isn’t it? Once again one man’s belly laugh is another man’s horrible chunk of arse-clenching bad taste. I do find embarrassment, awkwardness, humiliation and confusion to be some of the funniest and most fascinating subjects/themes on the planet. A good pregnant pause that goes on for seven beats too long can reduce me to tears.
Artistic inspirations... can you name a few?
The photography of Joel-Peter Witkin & Diane Arbus. The music of Ennio Moriicone, Bernard Herrmann and Stephen Sondheim. The plays of Andre De Lorde and Jean Genet. The brilliance of Anton Szandor Lavey and Kenneth Anger and the books of Edgar Allan Poe, The Marquis De Sade, Hubert Selby Jr., William Lindsay Gresham, Ray Bradbury and Raymond Carver.
Do you have a favourite line or passage from the show that encapsulates the spirit of the thing?
ALPHONSE: The blood poured from her mouth as she grinned knowingly at him.
“You are just like me!”
With a scream that threatened to hack his soul into tattered ribbons he mustered every ounce of strength that he possessed and brutally hammered his Mother’s head into the stone mantle like a battering ram. The sharp snapping cracks of splintering bone soon gave way to the sickening rhythmic sounds of soft, pulpy, semi-liquid slapping. An obscene grey and red spray accompanied the terrible impact of each savage blow that he inflicted sending bone, blood and brains showering all over the room. His vision became dim and blurred and his breath, short and haggard as his exertions slowly started to wear him down. The pulsing in his ears raged like the boots of an approaching army. By the time he had finished he was coated from head to toe in a slick, ebony syrup that dried on his skin like an evil, gelatinous honey. He released his grip on his Mother’s ruined head and let her body tumble to the dirt floor like a tumefied sack of putrescent offal. With a calmness and clarity he had never known before he surveyed the scene of human devastation before him just as a skilled carpenter examines a new cut of wood for knots and other imperfections. He regarded the grotesque and yawning mess of his Father’s smashed jaw as it jutted up and out at an impossible angle. He considered the meager remains of what was once his Mother’s head. A partial fragment of her left eye socket accompanied by a bloated, sluggish tongue that was still anchored to the thick red meat of her lower jaw was all that remained. And there was nothing wrong that! Nothing wrong here!
Finally, we should come and see The Ballad Of The Plague Doctor because...
There is nothing else like The Laudanum Project.
The Laudanum Project's The Ballad Of The Plague Doctor, plays Feb 22–23, 2013 at Club Voltaire, 14 Raglan St North Melbourne. Tickets are available through www.trybooking.com or at the door.