Wednesday 19 January 2011

A goofy gorilla on a Ripper’s rampage

La Maldicion de Poe, Southbank Centre, London

London International Mime Festival


Edgar Allen Poe’s writing chills. His most famous images – the immovable Raven that moves from oddity to irritant to menace; the unstoppable beating of the Tell-Tale Heart – slowly bore their way into your brain. I doubt that he would have come up with a goofy gorilla on a Ripper’s rampage. It lacks finesse.

That probably goes for the entirety of La Maldicion de Poe, which – though it translates as The Curse of Poe – might be better served by the title ‘La Farsa de Poe’. Or better still, ‘Calamity Poe’.

In it, a young Edgar Allen falls in love with Annabel, whose playful affection diminishes as she succumbs to tuberculosis. Meanwhile, across town, a performing gorilla slips out of his lease and grows slasher-happy, murdering Poe’s grandparents, leaving Poe as suspect on the run. From that point on, the gauche and ghoulish puppets of Teatro Corsario play out a cop-chase caper. Fleeing from an inspector, Edgar Allen Poe gets entangled in another murder, a body-disposal mission, caught and on the cusp of execution, before escaping to mourn Annabel’s death.

With little connection to Poe’s work, beyond the notion that he is stalked by death, Teatro Corsario provides no insight on the man. Poe is reduced to the arbitrary central point of silly escapades. His estimable identity serves only to give a boyish puppet a degree of dignity. These things, we project, should not happen to a man like Poe. In that gentle subversion of our idea of Poe, taking a revered literary figure and undermining him, it is similar to the web-cartoon series, Strindberg and Helium, in which the playwright August Strindberg is seen in the company of a foolish, falsetto-voiced balloon.

Here, the whole becomes a basic – and often base – sideshow. Even on those terms, however, La Maldicion de Poe doesn’t offer enough to fully satisfy. The puerility of its humour, often reliant on puppets demonstrating animal urges and functions, infantilises its audience, offering immediate visual gags rather than developing the comedy from the situation. Nor can it handle its element of horror and thrill, wanting its gaunt, pinched-faced puppets to seem macabre as objects and simultaneously asking us to invest in them as subject to fearsome external forces, death and other threats. The two aims seem incompatible.

Only in the final scene, when a giant white shroud of death looms over the grieving Poe, does it mine a shiver. Death’s calm stillness and its warped figure work better than the frenzied inaccuracy that precedes it. The image, haunting and unnatural, is granted space to work on us, to linger and unnerve, where previously we have been forcefed. The same goes for a beautifully constructed underwater scene, in which a husband cannot escape the grip of his dead wife’s hand.

There’s technical skill on display, though more from lighting that masks than puppeteers that marvel. Too much is bungled; too much detail is lost. Fights involve animals flying around each other, like dust-clouds with protruding fists, rather than specific actions. At its best, puppetry can afford us an outside perspective on ourselves. La Maldicion de Poe is just a succession of silly things.


Till 19 January 2011


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National Theatre
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Royal Shakespeare Company
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