'Countess' is a new play written and directed by Amanda Fleming and is billed as a Gothic Horror based on the true story of the Hungarian Contess Elizabeth Bathory. The play had previously been performed within the 'Gothic' structures of Littleborough Church, but knowing the size and limitations of Salford's Fringe venue, The Eagle Inn, I was more than curious to see how this play would work here.
Fleming's creative and imaginative use of space worked extremely well, with some of the audience seated on what would normally have been the stage and the tiny auditorium area turned into a small in-the-round configuration with some scenes even taking place on the spectators' gallery above. [I loved the use of silhouette!]
The story follows the 'legend' of the mad Countess Bathory closely, as she descends from being the aristocratic daughter of the King to a woman possessed and obsessed which finally lead her to being condemned and bricked into one of her own castle rooms until she died. Taking this challenging role was Alexis Tuttle whose characterisation took inspiration from both Lady MacBeth and Ophelia with a little 'Hammer House Of Horror' thrown in for good measure. There was a playfulness about her character which made you like her despite of knowing the horrors she was performing. The proximity of the actors to the audience helped in this regard as she leant on one audience member at one point as if she were the back of a chair, and toyed with another's hair abstractedly. This, mixed with her almost sexual blood-lust to be young and beautiful (which for her represented power and recognition) ["who will take notice of an old hag?!"] brought about a multi-layered complex character which could quite easily have descended into 'Carry On' territory, but was restrained and real to the end. "I would sell my soul to be young again" she admits - and there are those who thought that that was exactly what she had done.
The play was presented as a series of 'flashbacks' - as we entered and were greeted by our 'Guide' (Edward Darling) who told us that we were about to witness 'memories of the past' and they 'cannot harm [us]'. We sat watching the horrors of the Countess' descent into madness whilst the Guide would interject pertinent information between each scene whilst also playing a priest within the scenes. It was role in which Darling was well suited and his mock gentility worked very much in his favour.
The quality of the acting in this play (80 minutes without interval) was overall of a very high standard and the cast worked excellently with each other bringing about some lovely moments of acknowledgement or conspiracy. Lindasy Eavis played Darvulia, the countess' right-hand woman who aided and abetted her in her Machiavellian 'games' of torture and killing with glee, whilst the poor wretches who fell foul of the Countess' wrath and scheming were Madam Vazi (Liliane Taylor), various young maidens (Hannah Torbitt), and her longest serving and most trusted handmaid Theresa (Lauren Hickin), whose changes from obedient servant to complicit evil-doer, to whistleblower with a conscience, were superbly placed. And with a tall and imposing Bond-villain-esque King (John Doull) this Gothic horror story was complete.
The pace of the play was set deliberately quite slow and although this was creating the correct atmosphere (especially with the candles and well chosen music) it did lack pace at times and became rather 'samey' and predictable because of it. If the time between scenes had been shortened and the urgency of the whole upped it would have made for a much more cohesive and compelling piece. Despite it being essentially a horror melodrama, there were also a few instances where a glimpse of humour was trying to break through. It would have been interesting to see these developed a little more and brought forward in order for the horror and tragedy to have had more impact.
However, nit-picking notwithstanding, this was a very enjoyable and also quite instructive play that could quite easily be developed further. Fleming has utilised her minimal resources to the max and it paid dividends in this atmospheric and stylised 'Gothic' horror.
Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 29/10/18
...and now for the second review....
'Countess' is based on the true story of the 16th Century Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory who is believed to have tortured, maimed and murdered hundreds of young women, believing their blood could preserve her own youthful looks. Along with Vlad Dracul of Romania, she was one of Bram Stoker’s two main influences for the fictional Count Dracula and the Countess’s own story was famously told by Hammer Films in the 1971 film ‘Countess Dracula’, starring Ingrid Pit.
Amanda Fleming’s telling of the story takes the form of a shocking character study of an ageing woman, desperate not to grow old whose bizarre fantasies and psychopathic appetites towards sadism and killing are given full vent through the absolute control she has over the peasantry. The compelling question is whether she is truly evil, desperately mad or some twisted combination of the two. The in-the-thrust setting of the Eagle Pub provided the perfect setting of a private room in a castle or dungeon, complete with balcony, which was used to great dramatic effect.
Edward Darling opens the show as the Guide playing a curious Monk-like figure, reminiscent of Ralph Richardson’s crypt keeper in ‘Tales from the Crypt’; a useful device for setting a scenario before horrors unfold. With a surprising entrance, Alexis Tuttle gives a convincingly menacing performance as the deranged Countess, surrounded by weak underlings. An evil delight in her absolute control of others is evident through a frighteningly understated intensity and the audience at the Eagle was clearly captivated. Lindsay Eavis as Darvulia, the Countess’s one true friend, is only a few shades less evil and arguably more culpable since she seems to possess a greater grip on sanity and reality. Laura Hickin as the servant Theresa, clearly knows what’s going on but her level of actual complicity is ambiguous giving an interesting dynamic to the character. Set against these villainous women are Hannah Torbitt, playing several of the Countess’s innocent victims with a helpless terror whilst Lilaine Taylor as the college mistress Madam Vazi is elegant and composed but her intellect and respectable position in society are no match for the Countess’s machinations. John F Doull as the King cuts an imposingly powerful figure who is oblivious to what is secretly going on.
Countess is a well-crafted mix of horror and psychological observation, grounded in the history of another country nearly five hundred years ago but in the light of modern horror stories like Fred and Rose West startlingly relevant.
Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 29/10/18