Edinburgh Fringe 2018
In the moments before his death, America’s most celebrated author of the macabre reveals how his sins and the tragedies of his life lead to his descent into madness and alcoholism, inspiring his dark and thrilling works. Thirteen of his most gripping tales including The Telltale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado and The Raven come to life as he reflects on his failed attempts at love and human connection.
As a Marylander, I will confess to being a bit of an Edgar Allan Poe snob, as Baltimore still considers Poe our native son, for even though he was born elsewhere, and lived elsewhere, he died and is entombed in our fair city so a show about his death was required viewing for my Fringe. Yet this is not so much a show about his death, but a reckoning of his mortality, drawing parallels between the dark shadows of tragedy which lingered ever present at the crossroads of his life, the sombre path of alcoholism and drug abuse which clouded his judgement and cut his time upon this Earth far too short, and the macabre other world which he left as his legacy.
Dressed in period costumes phantasms fill the stage and spill out into the audience with a sombre air as we enter the theatre, the feeling uneasy and oppressive, secretive and dark, so pervasive that one imagined the scent of decay, of water seeping in and time running short, extending past the point of comfort until the audience was near desperate for something to happen as we start to giggle and fidget self consciously under the silent gaze of nearly twenty actors surrounding an empty chair. At last the lights go out, the show begins lit by candlelight, and Edgar Allen Poe makes his appearance, the guest of dishonor as the ghosts of his past regale the audience with the sordid details of his disgraced life. This is merely the prologue to Poe’s own tale, the justification for his failed existence, the gossamer threads which tie his life to his work, spun in a seamless web over the next hour, fragmented stories and vignettes overlapping and melding with the most famous stories of his legacy.
There are the familiar tales such as the Tell-Tale Heart, The Cask Of Amontillado, The Masque of the Red Death, and the Raven, some more successfully told than others but the presence of Poe and the connections drawn from his own life serve as an effective and compelling segue to the stories, and the handling of the language and verse remains conversational and immediate, which gives Poe’s work an all the more terrifying feel as they emerge not from the dark recesses of a corrupt mind but as extensions of tragic but commonplace events, the effect suddenly more plausible than the ghost story told around a camp fire.
A true stand out moment is the handling of Annabel Lee which left a profound melancholy which crossed the chasm of time and landed like a knife upon the heart, yet the pacing allows just enough silence and space to feel the full weight of loss, then forces us to accept the relentless march to Poe’s untimely end. Wayne Mitchell gives a masterful performance as Poe, accusing the shadows of his life for cursing him, and creates a nuanced, complex man worthy of adoration and revulsion in equal measure, and his final confrontation with his own demons, embodied in the story of The Raven is more than compensation for any small shortcomings in the piece.
Equal parts ghost story, biography, gothic theatre, and poetry, The Death of Edgar Allan Poe is a funeral to which you should not be late.