It takes a special kind of person to watch a very stylized – and very seventies – psychological horror film and decide to adapt it for the stage. Not least because it is an almost impossible task to transfer the suspense, the action and the gore to live theatre, and because Suspiria, the 1977 cult classic originally directed by Dario Argento, is very much in the horror Hall of Fame. Hannah Rose Kessler takes on the task of bringing the biting tension and vivid style of the film original to the Pilch stage in an ambitious adaptation which was unfortunately overshadowed by staging mishaps.
The production had many strengths. There were no lulls or moments of boredom during the one-hour show, and the pace of the storytelling was refreshingly energetic. The ensemble work well together as a group – they really fill the space during movement sections, and mesh and mingle seamlessly when the scene calls for it, portraying the hubbub of a crowded street or the chaos of a pack of wild dogs. Nicole Jacobus gave a strong performance as Suzy Bannion, mingling innocence, suspicion and defiance in trying to explain the strange occurrences at the ballet school, and eventually fighting for her life. Anusia Battersby was icy and terse as Miss Tanner, the ballet teacher, who confusingly had the only German accent in a play set in Freiburg. Jessie See gave a nuanced performance, portraying a mixture of fear and rebellion as Sara, the friend who raises Bannion’s suspicions; and Sophie Morris proved popular as Olga, the flirtatious older student, dressing and behaving like a pin-up girl among the tense younger ballerinas. A small number of cast members unfortunately did not fully commit to characterisation, staying reserved and withdrawn in energetic scenes, or delivering lines without much portrayal of character.
There were no lulls or moments of boredom during the one-hour show, and the pace of the storytelling was refreshingly energetic.
The lighting was minimal but effective in creating the tense, colourful atmosphere the production aimed for. Blues, oranges, and reds were the standout colours, which was a nice nod to the film’s focus on vivid primary colours. Lighting designer Sarah Wallace should be proud of her work. I had mixed feelings about the film’s iconic soundtrack being directly used for the stage adaptation because many audience members seemed to think the music had been composed for this production. Although the soundtrack is excellent, there were moments where the production felt less like an adaptation and more like a direct replaying of the original. This being said, Lizzie Arnold’s sound design made good use of the Pilch’s sound system to create a surround effect, drawing the audience in on all sides.
Although a play set alternately in ballet studios, bedrooms, and city streets may ostensibly call for a variety of different props and settings, the limited space afforded by the Pilch does not allow this, and it was the set design which ultimately let the production down. By using a number of large props (such as a bed and a chaise longue), a great deal of the space was used up in storage. This meant that the ensemble scenes were cramped, and that transitions were painful to watch. During almost every scene change, something was dropped or knocked over, or a cast member tripped. This was very distracting, as indeed was the cast audibly speaking to each other while offstage during transitions. The design itself was also neglected in favour of the use of props. It was comprised only of a white curtain and a printed screen, and I couldn’t help but feel that set designer Kate Weir was capable of more. It would have been more effective to focus on the static set design, with a better awareness of the limitations of the physical space of the Pilch, and less of a reliance on bulky props and big scene changes.
Overall, Suspiria was an ambitious endeavour which just fell short of its aims. Its clunky moments were the distracting factor from an otherwise well-told and well-paced story.