“All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream”
Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe is a show by Canadian company Catalyst Theatre and is playing a short residency in the Barbican’s main theatre as part of their bite festival and the London International Festival of Theatre. Using a mixture of physical theatre and songs, it follows Poe’s life from his troubled childhood to the unexplained circumstances around his death, mixed into the narrative are hallucinatory dream sequences as we see the events of his life as if told in the manner of one of own stories.
There’s a whole raft of comparisons that one could make to try and describe the world created by Catalyst on the stage here; the Jan Pieńkowski books of my childhood, Tim Burton, the Lemony Snicket film, Dr Seuss, these should give you an inkling of the type of thing we’re talking about here as otherwise I’m not sure I could do it justice. Bretta Gerecke’s design draws on all of these, using a wall of gauzy black lace screens to move between reality and the imagination, and creates a world full of exaggerated, grotesque images and characters, enhanced by some very effective lighting and shadow-play.
Although it is Poe’s name in the title, this really is a huge ensemble effort, the seven actors work tirelessly throughout at fully realising the world which this man inhabited. The story is told through the use of a rotating cast of narrators, talking and singing predominantly in rhyming verse: each actor (save Scott Shpeley as Poe) takes a turn at playing narrator as well as creating a considerable range of supporting characters. Beth Graham and Ryan Parker were a tiny tiny bit more notable but all impressed with both their acting and vocal talents and the nice use of choreography in so many of even the smallest gestures. The ensemble needs this strength as Poe is presented as quite a passive figure here, lost in his own imagination and reacting mostly silently to what happens to those around him but Shpeley copes admirably with this with a brilliant physical performance, taking us with him through his emotions almost by movement and facial expressions alone.
Throughout there’s a nice blend of the gothic horror with a tongue-in-cheek humour that keeps things from ever getting too heavy, and there is a lot of darkness contained here as Poe’s life really was inordinately full of tragedy. The original score by Jonathan Christenson is darkly gothic and rather pervasive, it underscores all the action and though not performed live, adds hugely to the atmospheric production. The songs were mostly solid rather than outstanding melodically, although one group number close to the end was a feast of harmonies and had me humming it as I left the theatre.
There are enough intertextual references to ravens and pendulums and the like that ought to please the Poe fans, I don’t know enough about the man himself to comment on the accuracy or otherwise of the events portrayed, but then this is not biography but something stranger, more elusive, almost dreamlike. That said, the storytelling is so direct and the atmosphere so evocative that even people who’ve never read any his work should find huge amounts to enjoy here. Nevermore is a great opportunity to see something a bit different, a delightful chamber piece: immersive, engaging and highly entertaining.