Review: Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’

Review: Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’

Francesco Spagnol reviews Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven (adapted and directed by Simon James Collier)

The first impression was suggestive: soft lighting, stormy sounds and a dark setting. Above all, I was impressed by the intimacy of Etcetera, a small pub theatre that helps to build the right atmosphere for this dark play. The Raven is a well-known poem from Edgar Allan Poe’s oeuvre. Written in 1845, this Gothic composition is a wonderful, highly perturbing piece of poetry. For this reason, since its first publication, it has been very successful and has been adapted countless times. It has also appeared in a Simpsons episode.

This adaption, directed by Simon James Collier, is in fact a complete re-working of the original tale, with many important differences, both in terms of plot and representation. Firstly, Collier decides to tell the story on stage, a brave decision that obviously affects and modifies the whole tale. But the main differences, as we’ll see, regard the number of characters and their natures.

The plot is essentially the same as that of the original poem: the storyteller, desperate because of the death of beloved Lenore, receives a late visit from a mysterious raven. Dazed by the apparition, the narrator wonders about the nature of the bird and the meaning of the only word it utters (“Nevermore”), and soon more philosophical inquiries about life, death and fate abound: these will eventually drive the protagonist mad. Collier’s adaptation runs with this, but the narrator is now a woman.

Lady Elizabeth Woodruff (played by Polish actress Sandra Veronica Stańczyk) is a young woman struggling with depressive thoughts after losing her lover, Lenore. Just as in the original poem, one of the main themes is the futile struggle between a desire to forget and a desire to remember. In this adaptation, however, there’s something more: Lady Woodruff seems to feel particularly guilty about the death of Lenore, who was herself engaged in a passionate affair with Elizabeth’s estranged husband.

But let’s put aside the plot, and concentrate instead on the production. A major change is using a woman as the main protagonist. Another is that the story is no longer represented through a soliloquy but rather through the relationship and dialogue of the protagonist with two other characters. One is Jameson, Lady Woodruff’s faithful butler, portrayed here by Michael Eriera; the second is Doctor Henry Anderson (Mitch Howell), an old friend of Elizabeth.

This results in a different perception of time and a clearer distinction between reality and imagination, an innovation which unfortunately ends up being quite harmful to the final effect of the play. In my opinion, the greatest charm of Poe’s poem is precisely the constant ambiguity of what is told: is the narrator reliable? To what extent does he perceive real facts? The shadow of doubt is removed by the far-too-crowded stage, and there’s no longer space for the exquisitely personal dimension of Poe’s original solipsism. Too much is overexposed, and there is little opportunity to empathise with Elizabeth.

For those who read Poe’s poem, the whole scene could go on for almost eternity or last a few minutes, since there are no time indications and no real events: almost everything occurs inside the mind of the young scholar. This may seem unimportant to some, but it contributes to the sensation of bewilderment which is necessary to appreciate the story fully. Everything is staged between the narrator and his interiority: the raven is just the trigger to the protagonist’s enquiries, and nothing more. In this way, this adaptation is more firmly rooted in reality. The result is interesting, but it perhaps comes at the expense of the sensations experienced by the audience. The problem lies in the transition from poetry to theatre, from soliloquy to dialogue. The excessively precise stating of both time and space is slightly detrimental to the original spirit of Poe’s masterpiece.

Also, consider all the ambiguity that gets lost: since other characters exist – and since they don’t hear the word “Nevermore” – it becomes clear that the raven’s voice exists only in the mind of Lady Elizabeth. In the poem, there is no possibility of confrontation because the protagonist is alone, and the doubt remains as to whether the raven can actually speak. It may seem a minor issue, but it is one of many small things that contribute to making this representation much weaker with regards to our emotional involvement.

Finally, the masochistic behaviour of the narrator does not come across as effectively. The young scholar portrayed by Poe shows a perverse enjoyment in remembering his beloved Lenore, and he keeps on asking hopeful questions to the raven, though the only answer he can possibly get is a pessimistic and categorical “Nevermore”. All of this is cancelled by the presence of the other characters. The story is no longer confined to the mind of the protagonist, and by leaving this dimension it also loses one of its strengths. Lady Elizabeth is now distant from the disturbing game of pleasant and painful memories: in comparison to the original, she lacks in emotions, and we therefore find it more difficult to empathise with her. Of course, the focus is moved to Elizabeth’s feelings of guilt for Lenore’s death, but this is perhaps not enough.

In conclusion, despite his applaudable effort to re-write The Raven, Collier’s new script suffers from a too-drastic shift in my view. The cast offered a solid performance, and Stańczyk manages to play her huge part well. Unfortunately, the impression that something went wrong in the transition from poem to play is impossible to forget: I don’t think there is a real need for the two new characters, and losing a considerable part of the original’s suspense and fear does not quite justify the new format.

Featured image credit: Okai Collier Productions

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