I have always been reluctant to use the word ‘visceral’ to describe theatre, years of stuffy theatre studies have sucked any real meaning from that word for me. But The Dead Twin, written by Chi Vu, directed by Deborah Leiser-Moore and presented by Footscray Arts Centre in association with Theatre Works for the Flight Festival of New Writing, has shot it full of life again. I could say that The Dead Twin is visually stunning, using space, bold lighting and restrained costume as a new language to speak of grief and horror. I could say that the soundscape was at once the foundations and the feature of this tense, pulsing play. I could say that each performer brought precision and vibrancy to their role. But there is simply no better way to describe the way Leiser-Moore has artfully combined these elements into a tightly wound thread which draws you into this unsettling world: the Dead Twin is a very visceral experience. A must-see for lovers of the horror genre, and those interested in new immersive, site-specific work. If that is enough to hook you, go and book your tickets now: slight spoilers lie ahead.
The experience begins at a jetty in Footscray, a short walk along the poorly lit path from the carpark to the water helps to set the scene for what is to come. I am always excited to see artists responsibly making use of natural resources (politicians take note). Whenever you enter a theatre you are crossing a threshold into a new world, but this crossing is often just a step through a doorway. The journey into the world of The Dead Twin is an eerie boat ride along the Maribyrnong: the lights and bridges of industrial Melbourne mirrored in the perfectly still water, an image which, upon reflection (puns are always appropriate, even when reviewing horror), fits perfectly with the entire production.
The boat ride is complemented by an equally eerie soundscape (accompanied by the thrum of the boat’s engine). Jacques Soddell’s great skill as a sound designer is apparent in the iridescent tone his work adds to the journey. Sound plays a major role throughout the piece: at times it sits under the dialogue, supporting the characters and emphasising the simmering tension. But at other times it bursts to the surface, unsettling the space before falling into a new rhythm. Soddell is masterful, his work is definitely one of the highlights of the play.
After disembarking the M.V. Blackbird (we were told with a laugh that it definitely wasn’t an S.S. by the charming captain), the audience (led by a great team of ushers) encounters a few ghostly images in the brisk evening air. Easing us into this world scarred by war and loss, these moments were all the more effective in strong, expressive lighting, designed by Niklas Pajanti. The lighting serves the story quite well, used not only to set the mood with bold reds, harsh florescent glow and a stunning moment with sparklers towards the end, but to guide the audience as they move around the space.
Once inside Henderson House, the audience is pulled back and forth between a family kitchen and a sauna. A striking red cord connects the two spaces, and beautifully illustrates the tension between the characters, and between two worlds. Steve (Harry Tseng), a promising young professional, has lost his twin brother (Daniel Han), in traumatic circumstances brought about by war. Steve struggles with his parents (Deborah Leiser-Moore and Alex Pinder), who have decided to erase the twin’s existence, finding comfort with Lola (Davina April Wright). But Steve’s twin isn’t really lost, not in the literal sense, and he begins reaching out.
Chi Vu’s writing fits the genre really well, the dialogue is meaty and often unnerving. Moments of lightness provide reprieve for the audience, and heighten the sense of dread that quickly re-emerges. The physicality of the play is also very effective, particularly moments between the two brothers brimming with repressed longing and violence. I do think there were certain moments — fat with tension and foreboding — that could have been milked for more.
And while I enjoyed the slow burn of the opening scenes, the play then seemed to race through many of the complicating factors and specific details of the dead twin’s reappearance. The increasing pace certainly added to a growing sense of unease and ever-blurring boundaries but I think that the slow-build could have been extended to allow more time to digest information before the play transforms into a full-blown horror show. That moment of transformation, which brings the action to a lurching halt, occurs when the twin returns to the world of the living. Han is spectacular in this moment, seeping in through the window, oozing down the wall. It is an image that could have been taken straight from a Takashi Shimizu film. Performed live is not only very creepy but also an act of astounding physical precision and control.
The performances are all quite good, particularly from Tseng who makes the Steve’s journey from lonely young man to desperate necromancer very believable. Pinkler’s Howard is wonderfully joyous and bubbly, bringing a real lightness to the piece which enhances the darkness of the ending. But while there was generally great energy, at times the actors failed to meet the level of intensity in voice and body that the nature of the story, and the cavernous space of Henderson House, requires. A moment where flour is flung onto the floor seemed a little reserved, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was for the sake of the clean-up. The audience left ghostly footprints in the flour as we crossed the space, and it could have been much more effective with greater coverage.
The audience’s movement was probably the biggest concern I had with this piece. I enjoy theatre that engages the audience on such a practical, physical level but I felt constantly aware of where I was; thinking about if I was blocking someone’s view or in an actor’s way or if there was a better position to see the action (I made the mistake of wearing squeaky shoes so I was reluctant to move while actors were speaking). I think this awareness was distracting, and that as we were a little hesitant to move through the space, to move closer to the action, we may have missed the intimacy that would have made certain moments more effective. At times, I found the yo-yoing between the two spaces wore a little thin, it felt somewhat repetitive. But overall it was an engaging innovative piece, and as this sort of immersive theatre becomes more common I am sure that little kinks like this will be ironed out.