The Pit and the Pendulum at Omnibus Theatre
Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Pit and the Pendulum has always been situated at the edge of human endurance. An unnamed narrator, captured by the Spanish Inquisition, is confined to a pitch black room with the walls closing in and the only company a deep hole, a swinging blade slowly descending and the rats. Although intended as an exploration of universal human consciousness, throughout the work’s reception that unnamed, un-pronouned narrator has always been cast as our culture’s “neutral” – a white man. This limits the radical potential of the story and, although unwittingly, gives the narrative a particular context and meaning. In their stage adaptation, writer and director Christopher York alongside actress and dramaturg Afsaneh Dehrouyeh change this casting and in doing so release new capacities in a classic story.
The protagonist in this piece is a young Iranian woman, imprisoned for protest and removing her hijab in public. With this deliberate and smart alteration, the contours of a well-known narrative change and take on new meaning. The pit, the pendulum and the rats become vehicles to explore femininity, freedom and oppression. Although clearly expressing opinions on buzzword topics, this production does not slip into a didactic or preachy mode. Instead, it does justice to a single woman’s experience of societal constraints whilst still keeping her unnamed, a figurehead for a larger population.
The new protagonist and her story, however, are not left to sit comfortably beside the canonical work they are built on. The voice of Poe, played by Nicholas Osmond, and his original language narrates the woman’s actions. She engages fiercely with that voice, arguing and talking back against the white, colonial tradition she finds herself embedded in. It is this dialogue between tradition and change that animates the play and Dehrouyeh does an incredible job in portraying the passion and fierceness of this debate. However, her performance is subtler than that, allowing for the moments of fear and uncertainty that inevitably come with any form of activism or rebellion.
To consolidate this powerhouse of a production, the lighting and sound design brings the themes and ideas central to it almost too close for comfort. The audience wear headphones, which bring Derouyeh’s voice, along with music and jarring sound effects, directly into their ears, whilst projected film and smart use of striking lights are challenging and dynamic. All this means that issues and identities that to some audience members could seem distant are suddenly right next to them, demanding our engagement, demanding that we question our instincts, and demanding change.
Photo: Richard Budd
The Pit and the Pendulum is at Omnibus Theatre from 6th until 24th November 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for The Pit and the Pendulum here: