About one hundred and sixty years before Keanu Reeves was getting his head around The Matrix (some say he's still trying), American author and poet Edgar Allan Poe was asking whether "is all that we see or seem/But a dream within a dream?" The American poet and author died in 1849 aged forty but is still remembered as the father of the detective novel and modern gothic literature, inspiring on these shores the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker.
Poe has been celebrated in other London productions, most recently The Masque of the Red Death by Punchdrunk who, incidentally, are returning this summer. Unlike Punchdrunk’s show, which revelled in unravelling Poe’s tales, Catalyst have opted for a more-or-less straight biography
Be warned that this show is no chucklefest. It is largely narrative-driven but moves along at a cracking pace consistent with Poe's short but full life, an existence which saw him lose two sets of parents, his brother, his wife, places at university and West Point, a pet (or two) and his own life in mysterious circumstances.
The show has been carefully written so that no knowledge of Poe’s works is required but there are sly nods and winks throughout to his short stories, whether it is a beating heart, a black cat, someone being buried alive (a recurring theme), a pendulum and a pit. Elements of his poems are included verbatim in the narrative but in such a way that adds ambience to the narrative.
The production itself is a masterpiece. The costumes are truly spectacular - the actors playing the real-life roles are dressed in surreal monochrome outfits while the worsening horrors being imagined by Poe are shown by actors flitting behind the screen in oversized head-dresses.The music may be pre-recorded (we didn’t see any musicians) but the singing and narration are live (as evidenced by one actor’s dodgy mike). The only major prop - a stage-length dividing screen - is effectively used to suggest the thin divide between the conscious elements of Poe’s tragic life and the morbid thoughts going on in his mind.
If you were looking for modern comparisons, the show is like a Lewis Carroll lyric poem aided and abetted by a Nick Cave songbook and directed by Tim Burton. The story may not be a happy one, and redemption is never on the cards, but there are moments of true horror and sadness that will linger in the memory. Poe may be long buried but, through the efforts of Catalyst, his life story and written works are still alive and kicking in the 21st century.