Much to the delight of you and I, the Oxford theatre scene is full of first-evers. Last Hilary, the first-ever student production of Nick Payne’s Constellations was staged at the O’Reilly Theatre. In Michaelmas came the first production of Nick Dear’s Frankenstein since its original run at the National Theatre in 2011. Earlier this term, the first-ever theatrical adaptation of Four Lions was staged at the Michael Pilch Studio.
This week, the Pilch makes a trend of filmic first-evers with Suspiria, adapted from Dario Argento’s 1977 classic. The production was perhaps spurred on by the recent news that the film is being remade, with Luca Guadagnino at the helm. Guadagnino’s last film (A Bigger Splash) was one of 2015’s most unfairly overlooked gems, so fans of Argento’s original can sleep well at night – the remake is in good hands. But is this stage production?
Argento’s film is thoroughly filmic. It makes heavy, stylised use of a musical score. Nearly all its shots are very thoughtfully composed, with a particularly arresting penchant for high angles. Close-ups are deployed to emphasise and isolate moments of horror. This makes a stage adaptation rather problematic, and perhaps explains why, in the forty years since the film’s release, no-one has attempted a theatrical transposition. The question here is: how do you convert these effects to application on the stage?
Thankfully, the film’s most distinctive visual motif – a pervasive, eerie pink glow – has been preserved by lighting designer Sarah Wallace. The film’s score, by Italian prog band Goblin, is also retained – demonic chanting and all. Whilst director Hannah Kessler is listed also as having ‘adapted’ the film, script changes remain remarkably minor: the psychologist plot tangent is cut and the protagonist, Suzy Bannion, is switched from American to British. Generally, this production approaches the original as sacrosanct.
This is not to say Kessler’s staging lacks innovation. Some use of bodily movement was always to be expected – it’s set in a ballet academy, after all. But what stands out is the intelligent use of bodies in scenes which would otherwise be awkward to stage. Black ballet leotards are here useful due to their inconspicuousness, allowing actors’ bodies to become dynamic aspects of the set. They swarm obnoxiously towards Bannion to recreate the storm which opens the film, they freeze in angular poses to form the forest that early victim Pat Hingle scampers through. In the now iconic scene where Hingle is murdered, the problem of creating both a window and a balcony is handled in a similarly ingenious manner.
With all this ingenuity, the doubling of Pavlo and Mark is handled in a nonsensical manner. Having the same actor play both roles is not a problem in itself: indeed, the same actor plays Dr Mandel. The problem here is of clarity. When playing Mandel, Connor John Warden dons a brown coat – a simple touch, but one that distinguishes the character visually. But Warden wears the same simple all-black costume when playing both Pavlo and Mark, a decision sure to bewilder those less familiar with the film. First we are told Pavlo speaks only Romanian. Soon after, Warden reappears, effortlessly conversing with Bannion in English. It is not immediately clear that he is playing a different character.
Despite this, Warden is a standout among the cast. Whether playing Mandel or Pavlo, he is adroit when it comes to producing laughs from the audience, and slides between roles with ease. Anusia Battersby’s stern turn as Miss Tanner is reminiscent of Alida Valli without being merely an imitation, and her authority over the girls is palpable throughout. Jessie See, playing Sara, has perhaps the most difficult role, having to go from cool and collected to paranoid mess in what could easily be an abrupt, jarring shift. But See thoroughly inhabits her character, and the shift is as natural as the over-the-top acting style allows.
The Pilch can be a difficult space to work with. Lazy design means that doors slam, and the fire escape sign over the stage right door means that you can never fully black out the space. As the script, perhaps as a stipulation of obtaining the rights, remains largely untouched, the production is made up of many short scenes in varying locations. The reliance on cumbersome items such as tables, chairs, and – egad – an upright electric piano, is frustrating given that set-changes between scenes were under-rehearsed. Things were dropped, the translucent psych hung towards the back of the stage was pulled up and out of shape, and at one agonising point the carefully painted screen was knocked over.
It is a shame that these things negatively impacted an otherwise bold and unapologetic production. But some solace can be taken in the knowledge that opening night is never the most fluid experience, and things will get better as the run goes on. Fans of Argento’s original will be more than satisfied by this show, whilst my counterpart – a thoroughbred Argento virgin – assured me that for those unacquainted with the giallo classic there is much terror, creepiness, and fun to be had here. If a production which brings the lights down for the final time on the entire cast screaming in unison sounds like your kind of thing (it should), then head over to Jowett Walk and see this.
Originally published in the Cherwell newspaper, 6 March 2017.