The Vault Festival was clearly THE place to be these past few weeks. Pop up gigs, visceral plays, beguiling cabaret and queues to see productions snaking their way round the building in anticipation. Every time I arrived it was buzzing. It felt like Shunt Lounge back in the day – always unexpected, always exciting, and always smelling a little bit weird. And if the Vaults were the place to be, Hellscreen was the production to see. I know this because in the queue I overheard people talking about ‘Coffee Fests’ and ‘Zine Fairs’. This was clearly the show for people at the cutting edge.
The cutting edge indeed drove the narrative of this production. Set in the contemporary art world, we watch artist Frank Holt (Jonny Woo) make a contract with cryptic benefactor Katherine Bowker (Suzette Llewellyn). She offers him the money to scratch underneath society’s surface to uncover the sick, shocking and sadistic. Holt’s new masterpiece is to reenact horrific crimes in a documentary style. This is the YouTube generation – his audience watch online. His daughter Amy (Vanessa Schofield) is the only antidote to this darkness but Katherine divides the two. Suzette Llewellyn gave a standout performance as Katherine, playing her with powerful seduction.
To enter the space you push through hanging plastic curtain flaps, which gives the impression of entering a huge warehouse. The audience sit traverse, highly aware of one another, whilst Frank stalks up and down Ana Ines Jabares Pita’s set with an animalistic prowl. Production values are seriously impressive: engaging film, bewitching original music, a pulsating sound design and ever-changing lights. The meshing of so many styles of design overwhelms and almost makes the production feel like one of Frank’s contemporary art experiments, with the audience as his real-life subjects.
At times we do feel one of Frank’s creations, uniquely tied to the action of the piece. There’s a chorus of four clownish characters who morph into various personas. From asking us questions, to playing invisible chess with us, they insinuate that we are pawns in Frank’s game too. We become part of the production and part of the art and this makes it impossible to be an unreflective viewer of this piece. Questions always linger: what lies beneath our imperfect world and how far would you go? The court transcripts used in the production are from true crimes recently committed. This extra authenticity adds a chilling element. The company’s use of them aligns them with Holt: they use real stories for their artistic game, bringing us to face the reality of our world.
Writers Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Rachel Parish have created a script of intriguing layers. There’s a sparseness and vibrancy to the writing and it rings potently. Phrases such as ‘the stench coming from our collective gut’ stay with me. Morgan Lloyd Malcolm is a writer that we should see more of. This unique collaboration with Rachel Parish is a welcome addition to her oeuvre. Parish also directs and the performances she’s elicited from her actors are committed and compelling.
The piece had a fragmentary quality. Mostly this worked and added to its disturbing quality but this also meant there was disconnect from any deep emotionality and the pace lagged slightly. Hellscreen is disturbing, unwieldy, and really made the most of the gaping-mouthed cavernous tunnel in which it was performed but there’s an unfinished quality to the piece and I wasn’t sure whether this was another stage of development or the creators had arrived at a final product. There’s certainly potential for it to be even sharper, more baffling and terrifying.