Cymera is Scotland’s new Festival of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Writing which is all set for the Pleasance in Edinburgh over the weekend of 7 – 9 June. Among the packed programme of author talks, workshops, open mics and plays is The Devil In The Belfry, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s piece of satirical fiction, which we saw while it was still in development at Edinburgh Horror Festival a few years ago. We spoke to writer/performer Dave Robb and director Flavia D’Avila about bringing the piece to fruition…
What do you think it is about Poe that still has a hold on our imagination?
Dave: Poe’s writing favours the first-hand experience of a horrific or mysterious event. It’s less about right and wrong and more about how it feels to be afraid, guilty, or losing one’s grip on sanity. There’s a lot of outlandish imagery and supernatural forces at play, but they’re just reminders of how chaotic the world is, and how trapped we can become in our own heads as we try to rationalise it. Some people look down on Poe precisely because of his focus on sensation and the present moment. Henry James, for example, once denounced Poe’s fans as ‘primitive’ – but the persistence of that primitive part of us is what Poe was all about.
What is the attraction to this particular work?
Dave: Devil In The Belfry is a less well-known comedy short that demonstrates Poe’s flare for the absurd. It’s written like a travelogue, but with the exceptional twist that the place visited happens to have been conquered by a demonic force, and everybody there is now trapped in its thrall. People don’t think of Poe as being funny, but there’s a sardonic humour in the story that caught me by surprise when I read it years ago. Since then, there’s been the ‘go home’ vans, Brexit, Trump’s promises of walls and a slew of other paranoid reactions to the idea of ‘evil’ outside influences, which kept bringing the story to mind.
What are you seeking to do with this adaptation?
Dave: I’m combining a more obscure story with some of the classic Poe elements to create a timely piece of interactive theatre. The audience will meet Handel Fledermaus, a former resident of the forgotten country of Vondorvotteimittiss, as he recounts the events that led to his departure. Like the best of Poe’s protagonists, Handel evidently has a few screws loose, and the story is even more outrageous than ever, featuring a few details from elsewhere in the Poe canon. But you don’t have to be a Poe fan to enjoy it – the show stands on its own as a theatrical fantasy romp.
What are your backgrounds in case people don’t know you?
Dave: I am an Edinburgh based playwright and actor. My first play was an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s The Works of Fate and I have been a creative consultant for Rogue Compass and magician Scott Silven. I’m currently also working on a sci-fi comedy about teleporters and protest voting. As an actor, I have recently been seen in the Scottish Premiere of Loring Mandel’s Conspiracy – a reconstruction of the Wannsee Conference – and as a zombie menacing hapless passengers in Straw Moddie’s ambitious site specific play The Boat.
Flav: I am a theatre director also based in Edinburgh, where I work freelance and under my own company banner, Fronteiras Theatre Lab. With FTL, my main focus is transcultural, multilingual, syncretic theatre, which is also the topic of my doctoral research at the RCS. The Devil in the Belfry is not an FTL production, it’s a standalone co-production between me and Dave. I joke that I have become the solo show queen of Edinburgh, having recently directed Mara Menzies’ The Illusion of Truth (Edinburgh Fringe 2017) and Debbie Cannon’s Green Knight, which is going to the Buxton and Edinburgh Fringes this year.
What has the development process been like?
Dave: I’d had the idea of a show based on Devil for years, so I had envisaged simply writing a script and having Flavia put it on its feet, so to speak. But we’re both firm believers that theatre should be visual and visceral. It would be all too easy to write my own version of the story and read it out with all the funny voices, but that wouldn’t be the kind of theatre we want to make, so there’s been a lot of improv and physical work, and I’ve been building the text as we rehearse. The show made a huge leap forward in April when we were selected by the NTS for Guest Room, and we had the rare luxury of adequate rehearsal space. Test audiences have also played an important role in fine-tuning the interactive parts of the show, which have become a real highlight.
Flav: It has been a very interesting process for me as a director of collaborative work. I have directed Dave’s writing with a separate cast before and I have also directed him as an actor in someone else’s play, so this is the first time I’ve directed him performing his own writing. My usual process with the writer and/or dramaturg in the room is to work with the actors while the writer/dramaturg gives and takes input and feedback, which informs the writing. As Dave in this instance is the actor, writer and dramaturg, it has been a very different pace in the rehearsal room and the decision-making process hasn’t always been a smooth ride but it has been a fun and rewarding process in the end.
If there was one moment from the show that you want people to see, what would it be?
Both: In the short story, the devil charges headlong into town without much preamble. We’ve re-imagined his entrance in the more classic Poe style, with our protagonist awakening in the middle of the night, certain that somebody is in the house. It’s suspenseful, creepy, darkly funny, and has some of the most bizarre misuse of a violin you’re likely to see this year.