Photos – Prudence Upton
Three young people enter a dilapidated old dwelling. Are they trespassing? Did they get the place via an unexpected inheritance? Were they lost in the woods and just happened upon it? We don’t know, nor do we learn the exact nature of the relationship between these people in question, or any of the backstory for what they are about to encounter in what turns out to be a haunted house, filled with some very creepy ghosts who bear them all manner of ill will.
The reason we never really find out any of these details is that there is no dialogue in the production, because strictly speaking, this is not a play. Nor is it a ballet, although it seems to be performed by dancers or mime artists, and it’s not a musical either, despite extensive use of sound design. A piece of hybridised contemporary performance that might perhaps be formally termed “a movement piece”, Jakob Ahlbom’s Horror is an 80-minute work of physical theatre combining intense soundscapes, unsettling video projections, prodigiously precise performance, ingenious lighting techniques, meticulous trick sets and props, all working together to create some very impressive illusions.
Indeed, these live special effects are of the sort one would ordinarily think impossible to create outside of the world of movie magic and the suggestible power of film editing. Some of the illusions are not just creepy, but quite breathtaking in their unexpected suddenness and blindsiding effectiveness. At times you will likely be left scratching your head as to how they even did some things, yet even in cases where you may intuitively realise that they must have employed, for example, a hidden trapdoor or an imperceptible wire, the effects are generally so well done that one is left blinking in amazement as to how effectively they have fooled you.
For example, at a certain point one of the spectral tormentors is reaching into the mouth of his seated victim, the lights stutter, and suddenly the ghost’s arm plunges in impossibly far, almost down to the elbow, as the captive’s mouth grotesquely distorts. Immediately one can infer that they have substituted the live actor for a realistic mannequin, but this is achieved during the micro-blackout with such stunning speed, replication of pose, and maintenance of visual continuity that you only notice it is a dummy because something beyond the bounds of physical reality has happened.
Perhaps some of these stage illusions would be less impressive if seated in the front rows, but even barely a third of the way back and the special effects are quite gobsmacking, undoubtedly in no small part due to the combination of carefully calibrated lighting, precise performances and, like any good magic trick, a healthy amount of misdirection.
However, while all of this praise lavished upon the quality of the scenic and performative effects is well earned, the rest of the show as a whole is another, more debatable matter. While faultless in execution, the show is somewhat lacking in conception, at least, depending on your expectations. Marketed as a genuinely terrifying creep-out, and while the show certainly elicited plenty of gasps and titters of surprise from the crowd, there were certainly no screams, and the few walk-outs did not appear to be fleeing in terror by any means. Horror is of course, much like comedy, an extremely subjective genre, and one man’s white-knuckle ordeal will be another’s eyerolling yawnfest.
Yet taking a straw poll between myself and my companion on the night as representing the views of one horror buff and the other a bit of a “lightweight”, we both agreed that while frequently surprising and decidedly atmospheric, the show was never at any point genuinely scary. One might almost be tempted to suspect that this was an attempt to make the show a bit more mainstream and all-ages, rather than target the bloodlust of hardcore fright-fans. Yet this seems unlikely, as the show was, although not exactly dripping with gore, unquestionably inappropriate for children.
Another possibility is that it is aimed more at bringing an external horror movie influence to the art theatre/dance/mime scene and in turn audience, rather than seeking to attract a moviegoing demographic to the playhouse. Either way it is a curious impulse, especially considering that the horror genre is by no means foreign to the theatre itself, being a not insignificant staple of the Victorian stage, and genuinely scary horror classics such as The Woman in Black have been mainstays of the modern West End for decades.
Part of the problem, we concluded, was that the tone was not particularly consistent, with its forays into more overtly dance-like flourishes breaking with the otherwise more cinematic choreography, and moreover some darkly comedic interludes serving to deflate rather than merely leaven the tension. This also comes from the fact that some of Horror’s homages are to famous horror comedies such as Evil Dead 2, at one point adapting the memorable scene in which Ash’s evil hand tries to kill him before he resorts to cutting it off, only to be confronted by the now ambulatory appendage. Grotesque though it may be, this is hilarious material, played more for slapstick than scares, and it makes any attempt to return to more serious frights extremely difficult – just ask Sam Rami.
Indeed, while it is churlish to be overly critical of intertextuality in this day and age, the sheer density of homages in this production teeters over into the realm of excessive, with effects and sequences that are outright lifts of famous scenes from The Exorcist, The Ring, and The Shining to name but a few. It leaves one wondering who these blatant references are for, exactly, as horror novices will miss all but the most obvious ones, while aficionados are more likely to be annoyed by the lack of originality than charmed by this surplus of identifiable movie moments. To make a comparison that will likely split the room, this wordless performance piece’s spot-the-reference approach is almost like the horror movie equivalent of Ready Player One. That seems like a particularly redundant exercise when far more clever meta-horror content has already been out there for quite a while, such as the inventively deconstructive Cabin in the Woods.
Although this show has evidently been a hit in Europe and not without cause, I cannot recommend it for those hoping to experience genuinely blood-curdling frights in the theatre, nor an especially original narrative or incisive metacommentary on the tropes and trappings of the horror genre. But as an atmospheric exercise in bravura stage illusionism and unbelievably effective precision performance work, it is a transporting and engrossing night out.
Jakob Ahlbom/Sydney Opera House presents
by Jakop Ahlbom
Director Jakop Ahlbom
Venue: Drama Theatre | Sydney Opera House NSW
Dates: 29 August – 2 September 2018
Tickets: from $59.90