Omnibus Theatre, London – until 24 November 2018
Cross-cultural adaptations are nothing new. There are numerous examples of stories that have been re-interpreted in another country to give them resonance. For example, Carlo Goldoni’s Il servitore di due padroni was reimagined by Richard Bean as One Man, Two Guvnors, and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven. The work of Edgar Allan Poe wouldn’t be the most obvious choice for such an innovation, but Christopher York has adapted Poe’s short story The Pit & the Pendulum and transposed it to modern-day Tehran.
Unlike Poe’s other tales, The Pit & the Pendulum isn’t rooted in the supernatural, but the fear that arises when one doesn’t have full access to one’s senses. Much like the protagonist in the original story, the nameless central character (who is played by Afsaneh Dehrouyeh) in this production has been locked in a cell with no light. Accentuating the sonorous qualities of her surroundings, the audience is given headsets that give aural clues to the surroundings.
At judicious junctures, the screen behind Dehrouyeh erupts into life as we see footage of present-day Iran and the measures maintained to keep the status quo. As a cultural and media studies student, Dehrouyeh’s nameless character is allowed access to books and films from the West. However, the more she learns, the more she’s able to draw parallels between ‘fiction’ and Iran’s political regime. Freedom is extolled as one of the most valuable of assets, but there is a difference reading about it and willing to be incarcerated for it…
In the show, the protagonist ‘hears’ the words of Poe in her head, as his tale about being imprisoned by religious extremists takes on new meaning. If I had to make one observation about the central character, she is fairly consistent in terms of her levels of defiance, relatively unperturbed by her circumstances. In that respect, she isn’t like Poe’s creation, who was scared witless by what he heard but could not clearly see.
While allusions to Star Wars are liberally included this production, there are other pop culture and historical references that more closely correlate to the show’s protagonist. The bleeping out of her name – signifying the State eradicating her name and ‘existence’ – can be traced back to Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Comparisons to Joan of Arc also spring to mind, as what she chooses to not wear – in her case, a hijab – plus her ‘outspoken’ views are considered too ‘dangerous’ to tolerate. However, in terms of something contemporary, she most closely resembles the Iranian-born French Graphic Novelist Marjane Satrapi, whose autobiographical Persepolis recalls the days of childhood during the Iranian Revolution, before circumstances required her to leave the country. The real question is, if offered the same opportunity, would the show’s protagonist do the same…
© Michael Davis 2018
The Pit and the Pendulum runs at Omnibus Theatre until 24th November.
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