There’s a fine line between horror and humour. Too much gore and screaming and the audience will be lost in fits of laughter. Grand Guignol, however, manages to balance things, serving shocks and laughs in equal doses.
The Theatre du Grand-Guignol in Paris (1897-1962) was known for its horror dramas. Its plays were filled with so much explicit violence and frights aplenty that a resident doctor was employed to care for the audience. Tales of murder, revenge and sadism delighted audiences, effectively delivering the torture porn in many of today’s horror films.
This particular play, written by Carl Grose and transferring from the Theatre Royal Plymouth, is a fictionalised account of the theatre in its heyday. It focuses on playwright Andre De Lorde (Jonathan Broadbent), a tortured artist whose sick mind conjures up gruesome, macabre stories for his adoring audience. He is met by psychologist Dr Alfred Binet (Matthew Pearson) whose interest in the theatre extends to De Lorde himself – what kind of man could write such stories? Hilariously, De Lorde is haunted by the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe who provides him with inspiration, though there’s also a wealth of childhood trauma for the doctor to uncover. It’s all wrapped up in a murder mystery, with a series of grisly murders taking place outside of the theatre walls. It asks us to question: does art imitate life, or is life imitating art?
With this production, it’s very much art imitating life. Presenting numerous sections of De Lorde’s plays like dissected corpses, we are literally the audience within the theatre of the play, the fourth wall as transparent as a ghost. The ceiling above the audience literally shudders at the entrance of Poe, whilst the script is full of actorly jokes that climax with an evil critic (I don’t know what they could possibly mean…). Some audience members on the front row were even sprayed with blood in this performance.
And there’s enough blood here to make Sweeney Todd look like a pussycat. As one of the characters jokes, what sells is “guts and tits”. The play does have a certain creepy atmosphere to it, but it’s soon filled with blood splatters, tongues being cut out, intestines sprawling across the floor and eyeballs being…removed.
The violence, though, all fits into the melodramatic style of intentionally hammy acting – even if it borders on silly at times. The story builds on horror clichés, delivered to the audience by the superb cast with a knowing wink and a nudge. Robert Portal's eyebrows alone bring a sinister edge to the multiple characters he plays, and Emily Raymond is hugely entertaining as Maxa, ‘the world’s most assassinated woman’. This is a horror play that doesn’t take itself too seriously. That may deter some people looking for a genuine thrill and, certainly, the play somewhat oversimplifies its psychoanalytical elements. Yet Grand Guignol is full of gory visual delights that provide laughs at the twisted end of the spectrum this Halloween.
Watch: Grand Guignol runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 22nd November.
Ticket courtesy of Official Theatre, visit their website here.