The dark, damp, cavernous spaces of Underbelly’s Cowgate venue are well suited to a performance that’s based on the dark spaces of the mind. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Black Cat’, much like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, pierces the surface of civilised man to reveal diabolical depths. To the outside world, Poe’s character maintains a veneer of respectability even as he sinks into depravity. He spends his leisure hours drinking in dens of iniquity. Eventually, compelled by a ‘spirit of perverseness’, he hangs his beloved cat, then buries an axe in his wife’s head.
In this 21st century reimagining we find ourselves in the company of two actors who have been given Mufaro Makuiba’s modern adaptation to perform. They sit at their allotted desks and read their lines into a microphone, stopping periodically to make catty comments about Makuiba’s creative decisions. They have been cast as a young, elegant couple, and sip on white wine as they peel away then discard each fresh page.
The pair are at odds with each other both as actors and as a married couple. As the couple, their cosy, middle-class alliance slowly disintegrates. The husband, a teacher, becomes increasingly moody and detached, while the wife grows tetchy and querulous. As actors they are undecided as to how to approach the script. Olwen Davies is keen to emphasise the horror and melodrama while Ollie Smith wants to play it debonair and insouciant. As a married couple they bicker. As actors they quarrel. As in Poe’s story the couples’ narrative ends in murder and death.
This is a play of layers and the audience is charged with the task of peeling away each one. Actors, playing actors, playing a couple, who work from a modernised script, whose source material is a Poe short story, which itself seeks to penetrate to the heart of humanity. Then there are the images within the story of sharp objects probing deep into human flesh, as well as the removal of bricks within the murderer’s house to expose the decayed and rotted corpse of his wife.
There is the occasional sense of gratuitous post-modern posturing, yet for all the cerebral tricksiness the actors’ reflexive comments possess a light-hearted, banterish charm. More charming still is the interpretative dance which caps the play off. At once silly and endearing, the dance, a physical reiteration of the plot, demonstrates that its devisers are self-aware enough to send up postmodernism’s pretensions. Clever yet playful, savage yet amiable, this ingenious new play reflects the dualistic qualities of the feline it depicts.
The Black Cat is on at Underbelly until 20th August. Click here for more details.