Review: The Bloody Chamber

An impressive adaptation of Angela Carter’s classic

A dramatic adaptation of prose is never an easy task, particularly in a piece such as ‘The Bloody Chamber’ where the strength of the writing lies in its richly layered language, its dark and twisting descriptions. The cast of this ADC Late's adaptation of Carter’s iconic short story however, have managed just this, in a production that uses lighting, staging and acting to impressive effect.

The set is the production's first noticeable success. Vibrant scarlet drapes hang across the entirety of the back of the stage, feeling somewhat separated from the fairly neutral bedroom and study settings that comprised the foreground of the stage. This works in the production's favour, ensuring that whatever action plays out on stage, the atmosphere of heaviness, suffocation and fundamental peril which defines this story persists throughout.

Danger and decadence are indeed integral to this story. Carter’s tale charts the displacement of a young teenage girl (whom Isobel Maxwell effectively interprets as confidently naïve and entirely terrified in equal measure) from her home in Paris to the austere seaside castle of a wealthy French marquis. Here, she discovers a menacingly sinister side to her husband, as the reality of his perverse and disturbing fascinations emerge.

When he leaves her alone in the castle on their wedding night, entrusting her with his keys and granting her access to every room in the castle but one, she cannot resist entering the forbidden room: the bloody chamber. Here, the culmination of all her disconcerting discoveries is reached; inside she finds the bodies of his three previous wives all murdered in gruesome and tortuous ways.

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Photo credit: Francesca Mann

The acting throughout was remarkably strong, each character committed to the maintenance of an atmosphere charged with fear, danger and desire. Cian Morey’s performance as piano tuner, in his convincing delivery of timidity and submissiveness provided a welcome and sharp contrast to the Marquis, his presence enriching one of the most powerful moments of the play. There is an instance when Maxwell, in despair at her loneliness in the castle with only the bunch of ‘keys’ repeatedly cries out this word in anguish. The presence of the piano tuner, alongside the placement of the piano nearby enable her meaning to be modulated to also concern the piano. The conflation of the sound of piano keys here with the reality of the keys she held in her hand highlights another strength of the play – its use of music.

A tinkering piano tune is heard at the beginning, intermittently throughout, and is taken up again at the end. It is skilfully employed, creating a genuinely sinister atmosphere that seems to mirror the action on stage and the Marquis’ perverse fascination with innocence.

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Photo credit: Francesca Mann

Lighting is also used to interesting effect in this adaptation. The fluctuation between the red, green and blue lights that bathe the stage at various intervals serve to accentuate the mood. The green light used at the start, when the bride embarks on her journey to her husband’s castle, creates an ambience of anticipation that is later transformed by the blue light representing melancholy in her times of intense loneliness within the castle.

A weakness in the story, however, lies in the ending. The arrival of the girl’s mother at the last minute to save her from her fate of death at the Marquis’ hand cannot help but feel contrived, particularly given the large, overtly theatrical sword that serves as Aw's prop. Yet such a weakness is as much due to the text as the performance, and the insertion of comedy and warmth in the mother’s words of reunion with her daughter; ‘whoever cried about gold bath taps’ is an effective tool that boosts a somewhat lacking ending.

The intention in staging Carter’s writing should be the creation of an atmosphere that mirrors the dark and decadent nature of her prose, and this performance, with its convincing acting and effective use of lighting and staging, does just that.

4 stars

Cover image: Francesca Mann