Bialystock & Bloom Productions took on an ambitious project by deciding to stage a double-bill of Maurice Maeterlinck’s early plays, The Intruder and The Seven Princesses. Penned in 1891, these two plays were formative for the symbolist movement. Full of allusion, misdirection, and metaphor, they were Maeterlinck’s attempt at bringing to the stage the symbolists’ belief that truth could only be described indirectly, and that things we experience should be interpreted as symbols that connect us to a deeper spiritual plane of existence. As a result, they’re phenomenally difficult to stage. The dramatic style is less about plot and more about contemplative meditation, giving a static, sometimes repetitive and circular effect. Bialystock & Bloom decided to offset the potential pitfall of becoming monotonous by staging the plays in the style of a 1930s horror film, complete with a soundtrack full of creaking doors. Unfortunately this seemed like over-compensation, and Maeterlinck’s fragile, allusory text got drowned in the maelstrom of screaming and strobe lighting.
The Intruder and The Seven Princesses are what Maeterlinck called ‘marionette plays’, designed to be ideally performed with puppets so as to convey how humans are governed by forces that are outside their control, and also to remove the personality of the actor so that the drama could be as “symbolic” as possible. The directors here, however, decided to place the physicality of the actors front and centre. Rather than the ‘static drama’ that Maeterlinck envisaged, the actors shook and shouted, frequently moving around the stage with heavy, angular motions to interact physically in a violent manner. While in principle there’s no need to adhere to Maeterlinck’s suggestions for how his plays should be performed, the effect here was to obliterate the suggestive nuances on which the plays are built. In The Intruder, the grandfather appears to lose his senses because he is tormented by sights and sounds perceptible only to himself, and his family are at a loss to explain the grandfather’s subsequent actions. Here, however, the actors threw the grandfather across the stage, shouting into his ears. While this was intended, according to the directors, to allow the audience to ‘witness the approach of death through the eyes of the blind Grandfather’, it meant that the emphasis was moved entirely from the idea of death to the physical, at times almost slapstick, spectacle playing out on the stage.
In general, a lack of subtlety was the production’s main issue. An overbearing sound design meant that a large proportion of the dialogue was often inaudible, despite the actors shouting throughout. It also meant that there was little in the way of silence throughout the entire two plays, despite this being an essential part of Maeterlinck’s dramaturgy. Silence, for symbolists, was spiritually powerful — in symbolist plays silence can signify nothing and everything simultaneously, with the intrusion of the slightest sound therefore becoming both suggestive and evocative. Without silence, much of what makes Materlinck’s plays so haunting is lost, and — despite some effective jump-scares — the barrage of somewhat clichéd sound effects was more horrific than horrifying.
That said, the actors clearly committed to their roles, and succeeded in immersing the audience in the production’s chosen style. Rebecca Irvin’s performance as Ursula in The Intruders was particularly effective, adopting a detached, eerie persona that was distinctly unsettling throughout. Susannah Townshend was similarly excellent in The Seven Princesses as Marcellus, the doomed young Prince who enters the Princesses’ chamber. Their performances were enhanced by spectacular makeup by Niamh Simpson, playing out amidst a simple and captivating set by Molly Nickson.
This was a brave interpretation, but for me it missed out on many of the possibilities offered by these two plays. The overwrought 1930s horror style swamped the texts, and ironically drained them of their potential to terrify and perturb.
‘The Intruder’ and ‘The Seven Princesses’ ran at the Burton Taylor Studio from 7-11 November. For more information about future Bialystock & Bloom Productions, please visit their Facebook page.