‘She makes you feel totally captivated and invested’: New Review critic Vanessa Giron on Night Terrors at Melbourne Fringe
I don’t like horror stories. But I discovered that I can sit through a one-hour show in which a woman shows me how the current political climate is various shades of messed up for women. It’s a frightening narrative to live through, but maybe not so terrifying to listen to.
Night Terrors, showing at the Bluestone Church Arts Space in Footscray, is no small feat, and yet its simplicity is charming. The small space reverberates with Caitlin Mathieson’s energy as she retells four classic short stories: The Telltale Heart, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Keepsake and The Open Window, all retold from the perspective of female protagonists.
Mathieson’s performance is nothing short of amazing. I left genuinely astounded by how she pulled that off in only an hour: she embodied each character, seamlessly shifting between narration and dialogue, expressing their terror, insecurities, even their humility.
She makes you feel totally captivated and invested. There is something wonderfully intimate about being let into the minds of her characters: it feels as if she is a friend enthusiastically talking about some mutual person you know – except that these are stories full of depravity, repugnance, and most importantly, “madness”.
The thin line between sanity and madness is a theme raised early on in the show, and runs throughout: what does it really mean to be mad, and when are you just surrendering yourself to reality? The horror in these stories is not that far-fetched, which is perhaps why I don’t like horror stories – they’re just a little bit too close to home.
The Telltale Heart, written by Edgar Allan Poe, is the story of a man who kills another and manages to get away with it. Eventually the guilt overwhelms him, and after hearing the heartbeat of the man buried under his floor, he confesses to the police. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is the story of a woman incarcerated in her home by her husband after she becomes ill. She becomes obsessed by the ugly yellow wallpaper in her house, which starts to take on a life of its own when she starts believing a woman is trapped in the walls.
The Keepsake, the only non-classic tale in this performance, is by contemporary Tasmanian writer Briony Kidd. It follows the story of a photographer who is commissioned to take a portrait of twin girls, one alive and one dead. Lastly, The Open Window by Saki is about a woman who regales a stranger with a story about his hostess, telling him that her husband and brothers died years before during a hunting party, and that she leaves her window open for their return. When they do return, the guest is horrified and flees.
Mathieson’s performance perfectly encapsulates people who have been taken to the brink, leaning heavily into seeds that have been planted in their minds. Night Terrors is a telling interpretation of these texts, because feeling and expressing our own realities can be difficult, because of the fear of being belittled by others. The theme of gaslighting speaks to greater narratives playing out in the real world at the moment about race politics, sexual assault, harassment, or verbal abuse and intimidation: too often it’s claimed that these realities are all in your head. Night Terrors is a rattling example of these sentiments taken to the extreme.
The performance is punctuated by Mathieson’s fantastic use of the space. The few props make the room feel eerie and cold. Chairs are slammed to emulate the bed frame in The Telltale Heart. Wallpaper is ripped off the room divider in The Yellow Wallpaper. Wind magically flows through the curtain in the next scene in The Open Window. The lighting, which illuminates an otherwise pitch-black room, feels like a character of its own, emulating candle light, spattered blood, the manifestation of a ghost, an invisible woman creeping around the house. Mathieson may be alone on that stage, but it’s certainly crowded up there.
Despite the horror, I laughed a lot throughout this show. Mathieson is so communicative with just a sneaky side eye, that you can’t help but cackle in a sick form of understanding exactly where these twisted characters are coming from.
For me, this was perhaps the best part of Night Terrors; Mathieson’s persona perfectly exemplified a kind of Mad Hatter, inviting me to spend time with a whole playbill of characters who are just as confused about the thin line between sanity and madness as I am. This is only, after all, ‘over-acuteness of the senses’.
The New Review program is a collaboration between Witness and Footscray Community Arts Centre West Writers that nurtures and mentors new critical voices. It is part of Malthouse Theatre’s Living Now resident writers program, funded through the MPA Collaborations program, and has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
Night Terrors, created by Stefan Taylor, directed by Simon J Green. Performed by Caitlin Mathieson, Bluestone Church Arts Space, Melbourne Fringe, until September 30. Bookings
Bluestone Church Arts Space is wheelchair accessible.
Auslan interpreted performances: each night until September 30.
Open captioned performances: each night until September 30.