Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum uses the Spanish Inquisition as a springboard for exploring the psychological complexities of human emotion. Creation Company’s adaptation, written and directed by Christopher York and performed at the Omnibus theatre in Clapham, recontextualises this horror into modern day Iran. Like Poe, York uses a real terror for his exploration: the news story of a woman committed to 20 years incarceration for removing her hijab and waving it as white peace flag in Tehran earlier this year. This one-woman production features Afsaneh Dehrouyeh as the unnamed Persian woman and Nicholas Osmond as the voice of Edgar Allan Poe, narrating the original gothic tale. With a ubiquitous Artaudian influence expressed through multimedia tools, The Pit and the Pendulum meditates on themes of feminism, resistance, empowerment and develops the ideas of hope and silence as dualistic reinforcers, contrary to their original status as diametrically opposed.
Often portrayed in media outlets as emblematic of oppression, the hijab has a significant and inspiring symbolic role within this production. As Poe’s character rips off cloth in the original tale in order to measure the boundaries of his imprisonment, Dehrouyeh also rips off a section of her hijab early in the play, allowing it to become a multipurpose item of stagecraft. The fabric is used tactically in many instances such as when she is bathed in light and performs fluid dance-like movements providing a graceful and brief alternative to the pitch darkness and distress encompassing majority of the play. Similarly, the material becomes her daughter in her arms as she cries for her touch and remembers that she is alone. In the meanwhile, the audience is exposed to real news footage and sound. Finally, in the play’s conclusion, Dehrouyeh removes her hijab entirely after she has crawled out of the pit while echoes of empowerment pervade the audience’s minds as she turns her hijab into a flag and waves it in surrender. The play comes full circle as the same action that caused her incarceration is that which gives her the strength to crawl out of the pit and stand in revolution, illustrative of the love she has for her country, so much love that she is willing to fight and stand up against its political climate.
Unique to this production is the use of headphones. Prior to entering the theatre, each member is given a set of headphones through which they will listen to the entirety of the performance. While this directorial choice was intended to invite the audience into the depths of Dehrouyeh’s consciousness through playing with the layering of noise in whispers, news footage and narration; this choice fails to provide anything special that could not have been achieved throughout the theatre sound system itself. Instead, the use of headphones is effective in a potentially un-intended and more significant manner: by isolating the viewer. In a usual theatrical production, a shared experience is created between all the audience members, as they can hear each other’s’ reactions whether they be laughter or shock, and the energy of the audience grows collectively. In this production, however, as audience members laugh at the myriad of sexual innuendos or Dehrouyeh’s sarcastic and witty attacks on the patriarchy, viewers are revoked from the collective experience and cackle alone. More significantly, in times of horror and shock when audience members would intrinsically turn to the reactions of others for comfort, the audience is forced to experience the pain in seclusion, reflecting the same isolation that Dehrouyeh herself feels in never-ending incarceration.
Intertwined in the discussion of headphones is the broader category of multimedia tools used within this production, such as projections and the use of sound. Multimedia in this play broadcasts terrifying images of war and news footage from Iran, intended to shock the audience through Artaudian techniques. The projections become more relevant and absorbing to the viewer due to the minimalist layout of the stage itself – solely composed of white cloth, the pit and later on a chair for Dehrouyeh to be strapped onto. Significantly, Dehrouyeh, like the audience, is aware of the multimedia and responds to it directly whether it be dropping to the floor as her daughter’s voice is heard, or her declarations to the audience of the horrors occurring on the outside while she remains imprisoned. Accompanying the projector is the use of lighting, often shining in pink and blue as projections are blasting or solely covering Dehrouyeh in white when the screen conveys darkness, providing scope for the exploration of her psychological state. Pink lighting is similarly used on the pit on the stage, perhaps to form the phallic metaphor between the pit and the feminine body, which I’m sure allows you to understand what the pendulum was referred to. Lastly, the colour red drowns the stage in moments of grotesque action, such as each instance when the rats invade the stage or in one of the final moments when the 8 lights in the ceiling, shaped like prison cell polls, turn off, two by two, in countdown for her inevitable fall to death. To this instance, Dehrouyeh shrieks in laughter and disbelief because again Poe has imitated Star Wars.
Creation Theatre’s production of The Pit and the Pendulum, therefore, is a witty and clever take on the Edgar Allan Poe classic incorporating both his gothic tale and the real-life horror that occurred earlier this year to a nameless Persian woman, still incarcerated and removed from her family. Despite this, however; the use of the headphone’s revokes some of the emotionally engaging elements of fear and terror omnipresent within Poe’s original tale and instead replace them with an intense isolation, causing viewers to inwardly question the resonating ideas of hope, love, empowerment and gain a critical perspective regarding how we, as privileged UK citizens, can make people privy to the countless battles that Persian women may face, internal or not.