157: The Fall of the House of Usher

25 Aug

Steven Berkoff’s play based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher is as wonderfully macabre and gothic as the original story.

book and shirt

The House of Usher is a sentient dwelling: a mansion crumbling into ruin along with the last of the line of Usher. Twins, linked by something more than blood, Usher and his sister Madeline are the last of the family line. They are part of the house, their madness and decline echoed in the bricks and the miasma that creeps from the swamps outside. When Usher’s friend comes to visit, he doesn’t know he’s coming into a morgue.

One of the things I loved most about the playscript was the way that Berkoff wrote directions/guidance on one side of the page and the script on the other. So each scene has the playing script and detailed notes on the way it should be played on the opposite page. It’s fascinating reading the two together and then separately.

Berkoff has used phrases from Poe’s original and added his own fantastic inventions. Usher and his sister Madeline now feed on each other like vampires, their affliction much worse than a genetic madness. I also love the way Berkoff has made Usher both the man and the house.

USHER: The House of Usher, my walls are
Bleak walls, vacant eye-like windows
Set amidst a few rank sedges,
White trunks of decayed trees.
[…] I hear
Someone coming to me. To me.
Make yourself ready house.
Strengthen yourself to receive him.

The friend who rides to their house and discovers the horrors is less pivotal (in Poe’s story he is the narrator and everything is seen through his eyes) and this becomes much more Usher’s story.

FRIEND: I look on him with horror. He has altered beyond belief. Are you the same person that I once knew. Cadaverous expression. Ghastly palor of the skin, eyes luminous beyond comparison yet sunken in two dark sockets. […] You smile. You smile and I cannot recognise the monster which hides behind your teeth. You have altered beyond belief.

USHER: We all change a little.

Highly theatrical, gorgeously inventive and with a dreadful Gothic heart, The Fall of the House of Usher is a stunning work by Berkoff. It requires skilled actors who are adept at mime and physical theatre and makes for a startling piece of theatre when all the ingredients are well chosen. I still vividly recall Fractal Theatre‘s 1994 production with Eugene Gilfedder as Usher.

Publisher: Amber Lane Press (Published in Steven Berkoff: Agamemnon, The Fall of the House of Usher)

Cast: 2M, 1F

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