Clear White Light: more Poe please

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Few can argue with a directorial debut that sells out its entire run. But in this retelling of The Fall of the House of Usher, I did miss the twists of the original story.

Rightly or wrongly, there’s a lot at stake when new artistic directors make their directorial debuts in their new homes. It sets in people’s minds what kind of direction you intend to take the theatre in. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this can often happen over a year after the new artistic director is chosen, such being the timescale of programming to production. So for the directorial debut of Joe Douglas to come nine months after his appointment was announced is on the early side. Part of the reason for this is that Live was already interested in this play, and Joe was keen to pick it up. And looking at the bigger picture, it couldn’t have been a better choice, because the entire run practically sold out before the run had started.

The big draw to this play was surely the music of Lindisfarne, a north-east folk group that, as we can conclude beyond reasonable doubt, has a very strong local following. But the other draw – and the one that got me interested – was a re-telling of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous tale The Fall of the House of Usher, with the remote house of Roderick and Madeline Usher replaced with the male psychiatric ward of a short-staffed hospital. The nameless narrator is now Alison, a nurse on her first shift. Rod, the cynical senior (and only) nurse on duty takes her under his wing, but it soon transpires his own sister is committed in the same hospital on another ward. It’s such as good set-up, with the location and Alan Hull’s music providing a perfect modern gothic setting fitting of an Allen Poe story. The only trouble is, I’m struggling to identify the Allen Poe story in this.

It’s not that Paul Sirett’s adaptation has nothing to offer. For every plot thread lost from the original, there’s a new one to take its place. A lot of the script resolves around life in the psychiatric ward. Some people got excited about how political this play was – for what it’s worth, I found it pretty uncontentious. We are all grown-ups here, the odd pot shot from Rod at Jeremy Hunt (including the obvious nickname) can be ignored. The more memorable element was the characters of three of the patients. When they are first introduced, it’s a fraught business with any of them liable to harm themselves or harm someone else without warning. It it only when the three of them are alone together that you really get to see their human sides. Madeline, now Maddie, also take on a new life in this play, and I liked the back-story of a woman who apparently put a lid on her own suffering to help others, and paid the price for doing so.

But when I looks back the original I saw so many missed opportunities. In the original, Roderick paints pictures, plays music on his guitar, and reads stories of knights fighting dragons – and in such a music-heavy mulitimedia-heavy production, so much could have been made of this. All too often, however, these iconic moments of Poes’s story get only a passing mention in this adaptation. The crack in the roof finds its way into this play with a very promising bit of staging at the start of the play – but then we don’t really see any more of that.

Now, I’m now the biggest Poe expert, and it might be that if the allusions to the original story are explained to me, I might see a faithfulness to the story that I didn’t see before. But the thing that is clearly changed is the ending. I will avoid saying that the new ending is because Clear White Light will almost certainly return to Live and I don’t to give away a spoiler – but I think it was a mistake. I realise the purpose of this twist was to highlight the mental strain that health workers themselves come under, but that could have been covered perfectly well with a more faithful ending. Instead, we get an ending that makes sense in isolation, but then raises some very confusing questions over whether any of the story actually happened. The new themes brought into this adaptation sadly come at the expense of many of the strengths of the original.

However, keeping an eye on the wider prize, what’s most important for Live Theatre is how Joe Douglas directed it. There, I have nothing to fault. For a debut as artistic director – even one who’s already had a prolific career elsewhere – there were few more complicated plays one could have chosen. With numerous staging effects needed to sustain the gothic atmosphere of this hospital, and the cast of eight doubling as the musical ensemble of eight, you’d be forgiven for thinking it would be a crazy gamble to do this as a first production, but if it was that, it’s a crazy gamble that paid off.

Even if this did miss out on some of the things that made the Poe story the classic it is, there’s no arguing with a sell-out run. Whilst I was writing this review, the news broke that the play is returning later this year, which comes as little surprise. The return run will be a success too – whether this can also success away from the north-east where the local enthusiasm for Lindisfarne’s music will count for less, we can only wait and see. Clear White Light joins Wet House and A Walk on Part in a very exclusive club of plays that sell so well they brought them back. It’s just a shame that some of the best moments of Poe can’t be a part of this.

Clear White Light returns to Live Theatre on the 19th September – 12th October.

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