I’m not the greatest celebrator of Halloween. I’m not a huge fan of the horror genre and the holiday goes over my head so easily that not even copious amounts of sugar can salvage my attention. Had Intruder and Seven Princesses come out just over a week earlier, however, I might have revised that opinion. This pair of expressionist horror plays from Maurice Maeterlinck plunges its audience into a grim hour steeped in fear and unease, all whilst remaining thoroughly intriguing, a twisted and ghoulish delight.
Immediately apparent is the horrific atmosphere the cast and crew manage to evoke. Everything, from the uncanny, jagged stage design which moves as characters’ anxieties start to enflame, to each of the characters’ various tics and twitches, works to unnerve the audience. The sheer physicality of characters, such as the Three Daughters from Intruder or the Grandmother from Seven Princesses shambling across the stage, is impressively disturbing.
The script is similarly jarring, punctuated with unsettlingly humorous non-sequiturs, synchronised coughing, and haunting repetition. The structure of both plays lurches from periods of outright hysteria to relative calm. No single event feels concrete, as the viewer is forced to question what constitutes reality within the world of the play, or whose reality is being projected. We are forced to ask whether there is truly any danger, whether it is coming from outside, or from inside. Even the transition from one play into the other is cleverly choreographed so as not to release the viewer from this immersive feeling of dread. It may be a cliché, but my heart was genuinely pounding the whole way through. The spectator is never allowed to feel comfortable for too long.
If anything contributes to the horror aesthetic the production constructs, it is the sound design. Not only do characters change their pitch, projection, and intonation for just about every line, causing their tones to clash with each other, but the producers also saw fit to possess the sound system and subject the audience’s eardrums to the most grating sounds imaginable. This is especially impactful in Intruder, where the audience seems to be being shown a representation of the Blind Grandfather’s psyche, made more terrifying by the fact that he is hearing contradictory information. The production opens with a warning of strobe lighting and loud sounds, and it surely merits that.
Intruder and Seven Princesses also has to be the first production in history that looked at the Burton Taylor Studio and decided it was too big a space to perform in. The production is staged in one corner of the studio, transforming the expected intimacy of the BT into a claustrophobic horror-scape where every scream, wail, and laugh is amplified, hopefully not your own.
The plays do fall short in a couple of areas, however. Moments where the lighting is completely cut are effective, making me wish there were more instances like this, or that they were held for longer, perhaps in silence.
Most of my praise until this point has been more relevant to Intruder than Seven Princesses, undoubtedly the stronger piece of the two. Intruder is scarier, more engaging, and makes more effective use of sound effects in every way. One gets the impression that the producers recognised this, too, as the stage is designed with Intruder in mind. Seven Princesses also has few interesting technical flourishes going for it, barring a clever technique of division between the sleeping princesses, represented by the characters looking through a window at the audience. Moments of meta-theatre, where the audience is made to feel complicit in the violence they are witnessing, close both plays, but it is simply not as impactful the second time round. Intruder is definitely the main attraction, but most of the issues of Seven Princesses arise from Maeterlinck’s script, rather than from the production itself.
In this case, it seems, to be deeply disgusted by a play is a testament to its quality. Intruder and Seven Princesses are a terrible pleasure to witness. Productions like this are few and far between, so if Halloween failed to scratch that horror itch, Intruder and Seven Princesses’ scythe will be more than happy to accommodate. A word of advice to the brave of heart looking for a truly frightening experience: sit in the front row. Just do it.