Review by Sam Waite
“The first lesson of politics: You can’t run a country from a forest.”
“You can’t cut down a forest if you live in it.”
For many, radically opposing political views can be among the scariest topics – not only can they cause immediate distress and upset to discuss, but anonymous vitriol and threatening language litters online debates. Deepika Arwind’s Phantasmogoria, named for a kind of classic horror theatre, brings these constant worries to life at Southwark Playhouse Borough, presented by Kali Theatre. Using a fictitious, unnamed country and a non-descript future as her settings, Arwind shines bright light over the murkiness of contemporary politics.
Mehrosh, a student activist, is finally coming face to face with high-ranking politician Bina, with whom she has repeatedly sparred over live broadcasts. Jai, a now-independent journalist who gave up a successful career to forge his own path, has convinced Mehrosh to partake in a private debate, to be broadcast through his new social media platform after the fact. What he’s failed to tell her is how far his relationship with Bina goes back, or that it is she who has provided their remote setting. On hand to help with anything the three should need, and to fret on Bina’s behalf, is her loyal PA Scherezade.
Billed as “a psychological horror for our time”, Arwind’s script isn’t interested in jumpscares or sending its characters (or audience) into fits of panic. Instead, she allows her characters to be funny, the situation to become increasingly claustrophobic, and the slow, deeply uncomfortable tension to build. Each of her four characters has a distinct manner of speech, so clearly their own and dripping with each’s personality. Mehrosh is measured, thoughtful, but easily driven to passion, Jai is straight-forward and puts you in mind of a slightly bewildered professor, Bina is collected, giving nothing away but making her interests ever-clear, and Scherezade’s speech is just broken enough to come across as almost manufactured – she, it’s worth noting, has the only non-English accent, and the script refers to her speech as “particular.”
Scherezade is also the first character we see, though she initially doesn’t speak. Played by Ulrika Krishnamurti, she is a constantly engaged busybody who can’t rest until all others are as comfortable as she can make them. Krishnamurti does a marvellous job of peeling the layers of the role just the slightest bit once the story commences, allowing for a more believable shift when her backstory and potential motives for her life and career choices are brought to light. There is a real delicacy to her performance, the hint of a sob always just underneath the bright, deferential tone of her voice.
A sometimes-smarmy and sometimes-clueless Jai is played by Antony Bunsee. Less meaty than the women he shares the stage with, Bunsee’s role still allows him some nuances to play with – without his vague non-answers to Mehrosh’s mounting concerns, the underlying horror of the piece wouldn’t build nearly as effectively. Bunsee’s offhandedly, deliberately thoughtless delivery of “Mehrosh is just doing her prayers!” when his young find is in fact doing yoga, is hilarious and entirely at odds with a scene where Jai is alone on stage, openly mocking those around him to himself and clearly appalled at what has become of his life and stature.
Two well-matched stars appear as adversaries Mehrosh and Bina. Hussina Raja imbues Mehrosh with all the outrage, the need for her voice to be heard, that we expect from young upstarts beginning promising political journeys. Meanwhile, Tania Rodrigues’ Bina is almost constantly calm, measured in her speech and movement, and seems to snap or become upset only by minor imperfections. Where Raja’s performance is a tightly-bundled cluster of nerves, always a moment from fraying completely, Rodrigues’ reinforces just how much Bina has pushed below the surface, and how powerful a small response from her can be.
Director Jo Tyabji makes the most of her captive characters, confined largely to a single room by the renovations going on inside and the manic weather shifts outside. The performance space made shallow by Roisin Martindale’s striking, convincingly unkempt interior design, Tyabji leans into the idea of the characters, and of Mehrosh in particular, being under constant observation and unable to escape this feeling. Martindale’s set, cracked from years of neglect and just a touch too old-fashioned to be in current use, always becomes its own character as the story progresses. Window-boxes filled with plant-life succumb to total darkness to reinforce and increasing sense of isolation, while props left on tables and chairs are knocked as the space begins to feel more like an enclosure for Mehrosh, an online sensation who only wanted to fight for what she feels is right.
Phantasmagoria is a style of horror theatre in which silhouettes, crude projections, auditory elements, and other sensory components are used to enforce how frightening or unsettling the material is. While there are strong moments from Neill Brinkworth’s lighting design, the benefits of which will depend on where you sit and where your eye is naturally drawn, the real power behind this play’s horror element is the sound design. Dian Mullen has crafted a soundscape so inconspicuous that, at one point, I hadn’t realised a low, unbroken audio had been playing until it was switched off within the play. Unsettled by the sound design itself, moments like this have the audience further disturbed by the sudden, unbearable silence. Forest sounds are constant, reminding us of just how far from the city Mehrosh has travelled, and how trapped she is beginning to feel when the debate is repeatedly delayed.
An unsettling and blunt look at how a difference in political stance can impact someone’s life, future, career, and even family, Phantasmogoria presents strong characters and mines genuine terror from its setting. There could be an argument made that it’s hard to root for Mehrosh, or for Bina if you were so inclined, because their politics are never distinctly explained – this, I might argue, is very much the point, that in a fictional country, in a non-descript year, with political views that may not align with any held by our society, the lines drawn between us can carry such heavy, and such deadly consequences.
Phantasmogoria plays at Southwark Playhouse Borough until November 25th
For tickets and information visit https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/phantasmagoria/
Photos by Nicola Young