Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Preview - Grand Guignol at Southwark Playhouse

IN Paris at the turn of the last century the Theatre du Grand Guignol was one of the most popular theatres in the city.
Based in a former chapel in the Montmartre district its success was down to it gaining a reputation for developing a genre of plays specialising in naturalistic horror shows - depicting violence, madness, murder, sex and terror and became the cult of its day.
Although it is no longer in existence - it closed in 1962 - it achieved legendary status and in its heyday tickets to see shows there were amongst the hottest in town.
Now a play by Carl Grose, which has just opened at the Southwark Playhouse after a successful run in Plymouth, pays homage to both the theatre and its principal playwright Andre de Lorde, who between 1901 and 1926 wrote at least 100 plays and collaborated with the experimental psychologist Alfred Binet to create plays about insanity.
Grand Guignol stars South London based Jonathan Broadbent as Andre de Lorde, the playwright who penned the gruesome dramas and his relationship with the psychiatrist who ingratiates his way into the company.
However the boundaries between theatre and truth begin to blur when the psychiatrist starts to unpick de Lorde’s mind with terrifying consequences.
Despite the somewhat macabre elements of the show Jonathan insists it is "very funny".
"It's funny, has lots of drama but is quite complicated," he says. "It's a bit like Carry On meets Hammer Horror! But it's enormously enjoyable and during the run in Plymouth audiences were laughing which is great."
He says it was an interest in the history of the Grand Guignol as well as the the script that persuaded him to take on the role.
"The script was the draw," he says. "I thought it was brilliant. Essentially Carl has written a tribute to Grand Guignol setting the piece in 1903.
"But it's also a pastiche of that particular style of theatre which is quite melodramatic and bloody and incorporates some of the original plays into his own one so the audience gets a flavour of what the plays were and were like but there is a mystery sub plot.
"De Lorde was a pioneer of this style of play and his work was very well known and well documented. Carl made the play about real people with huge dramatic license but essentially it's about a theatre company within the Grand Guignol which actually existed and ran until the 1960s. The productions they staged were hugely popular and were the real must see ticket of the day.
"They featured people like Paula Maxa who we meet in this play and who was known as the Sarah Bernhardt of her day.
"It's so funny, well written and gripping and I read it in one sitting. It was a real page turner and looked challenging to do."
And the challenges presented by the play extended to him being able to develop technical skills such as faking gauging peoples' eyes out.
"There's lots of blood, guts and gore and people have their throats slit so there are a lot of technical things to be achieved to make people buy into the horror of these plays," he says cheerfully.
"I get to gauge someone’s eye out with knitting needles - which is something you don’t do in Midsummer Night’s Dream!" he laughs. "The props department have come up trumps with all the magic and worked hard at things appearing to be real so it's been great fun."
As well as the technical elements Jonathan says the play will keep audiences on their toes.
"The script is very clever and you never quite know where the story is going," he says. "You think you have got a handle on what it is then it goes somewhere else – and it’s like this til the last page. It’s fantastic. It plays on the audience's perception of what they are seeing even to the last page of the script.
"It’s quite brilliant and it makes the audience go somewhere and think rather than just letting it wash over them.
"It's a shame the theatre no longer exists in Paris," he adds. "There was a similar venue in John Adam Street in central London for many years which Noel Coward wrote plays for. Although it's gone too the Soho Theatre does a Grand Guignol season."
And he says that the Southwark Playhouse is the perfect venue for the show.
"Originally the Grand Guignol Theatre was in the arty part of town, down an alleyway and the experience of going there was probably a bit seedy and scary. I don't want to cast aspersions on the Elephant and Castle but the subway is a bit scary!
"The Grand Guignol was a little fringe theatre seating less than 300 people which is much like the Southwark Playhouse. It's also got that 'off the beaten track' feel to it which is exactly like Grand Guignol so I think it's the perfect place to host it.
"It's also a venue where they aren't afraid to take risks with the shows they put on and have a fantastic range of work.
"And it's hosting a play that treats its subject successfully and has a serious story behind it so I think it will be right at home there and it will go down really well - you may even have to kill for a ticket!" he laughs.

Grand Guignol is at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway until November 22. Tickets cost £18, £16 concessions. Visit or call the box office on 020 7407 0234.

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