Chilling visions of Dickens
By Owen James
A haunted, secluded mansion plagued by visitations from spectres and spirits is no new story, but remains irresistible to the creative mind. In The Haunting, writer/adaptor Hugh Janes has taken five short stories from the supernatural-obsessed Charles Dickens, and refashioned them into this two-handed drama-horror. This library of Dickens’ tales is aptly set inside a library, with the young book dealer David Filde cataloguing the books of Lord Gray, as a series of strange and unexplained events haunt the unsettled pair.
As we enter the deceptively intimate Athenaeum, we are met with the beautiful set designed by John Kerr. There are dusty, cobwebbed never-ending shelves of the desolate and abandoned library, and a nightmarish tree beyond the window, eerily bare of leaves. This evocative, thematically overbearing Gothic mansion, like the play itself, conceals secrets in every nook and cranny, with intricate design and not a detail overlooked by Kerr.
With a sudden stab of sound and a dramatic dropping descent of lights, we are instantly transported to this haunted Victorian world crafted by director Jennifer Sarah Dean, where nothing and no-one can be trusted. We are hypnotically drawn slowly into the sceptical minds of our two characters, and lured into a false sense of security – the perfect victims for chills and jump-scares a plenty. While the first few of these were received with small bouts of laughter, the audience’s bemused titillation descended into audible gasps. Kyle Evans’ eerie sound design played perhaps the biggest part in this. Almost a whole other character, the sound effects and soundscape are perfectly effective and always precisely timed – but could afford to be louder. The walls of the haunted Athenaeum could shake and rattle a little more.
Duo Cameron Daddo and Gig Clarke build the tension and suspense necessary to pull off this piece, and clearly enjoy working with each other. Watching their combined terror mount with each heightened descent into the nocturnal haunted world invites us to join their trepidation and jolting surprise, being as much the victims of this haunting as they are.
Daddo does a commendable job presenting the cautious and austere Lord Gray as a man perturbed by compromise and change. As Gray moves from certainty to fear, building to hysterics, his counterpart takes an almost mirrored approach. Clarke as the seemingly tentative yet curious David Filde is a delight to watch, delivering the character and his stories with perfectly executed stress and anxiety – perhaps symbolising Dickens’ own obsession with the supernatural world.
Tehya Nicholas provides a chilling visual performance as Mary, hitting her marks to execute the well-timed moments of shock and intensity. Her ghastly costume by Rhiannon Irving appears always briefly, but memorably. Jason Bovaird’s chilling lighting reveals every darkened corner and cavity at just the right moment, and aptly focuses our attention when and where required. The warm sunlight and misty Gothic nighttime invoke diurnal safety and tense claustrophobia respectively, creating the ideal sinister aesthetic for the piece.
The tension built by the strong first act is unfortunately hindered by a weaker second act and anticlimactic ending. The strong performances and technical elements do their best to keep up, but ultimately we are left questioning how to feel for these characters, and where or with whom our sympathy should lie. The Haunting is a visually evocative and beautifully atmospheric piece that provides a wonderful ride, where it’s best to enjoy the journey but perhaps not the destination.
The Haunting haunts the Athenaeum Theatre until July 1st. Tickets through Ticketek: https://premier.ticketek.com.au/shows/show.aspx?sh=HAUNTEDD17
Photography by Nicole Riseley