“Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform.” So begins Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre tale of obsession and death, Berenice. At all of a dozen pages, it doesn’t lend itself to a straight theatrical adaptation. So with Mono, a new performance piece at the Abbotsford Convent this week, a straight adaptation is not what you’re going to get.
Mono is a formless, experimental piece inspired by Poe’s tale, mixing theatre with performance art for a discomforting series of surreal vignettes. Time slows down to an uncomfortable drawl. The walls drip blood. Poe himself makes an appearance, as does Frida Kahlo. Just 60 people see each performance, and the stage, a long, white platform, takes up nearly as much room as the audience. The effect is the feeling of peering into a surreal world, rather than being a guest at a performance.
The experience is not focused on narrative or character development, and it’s not going to give you all the answers. But should art always give you that comfort?
“Absolutely not,” says director and designer Matt Adey. “I think all art should be challenging. The artist’s job is to always question everything, even what they’re doing themselves.
“It should be about putting out an expression of how you see the world,” he says. “People will take what they want to take from it.”
The point of Mono, like Poe’s story, is obsession and bewilderment. “Berenice is the story of a man who goes into these trance-like states of monomania,” says Adey. “He’s married to his cousin, and becomes fixated on her teeth.” This, Adey tells me, is an entry point to talk about our own obsessions. “It’s not about telling people what to think, it's creating a tempo that people can sink into.”
Production company House of Vnholy is touting the piece as disturbing but mesmerising, beautiful but grotesque. Adey is particularly proud of a review from AussieTheatre.com.au which states that the show is, “Repetitive, confronting, overly long and uncomfortable in parts … but at times, very beautiful indeed.” That’s not exactly a compliment in the traditional sense, is it?
“No, it’s not,” says Adey, who sees theatre that pushes your limits and challenges your sensibilities as theatre that succeeds. “Those are the pieces that come back to you again and again. So I like to let audiences make their own connections.”
Mono runs at Abbotsford Convent until Sunday August 16. Performances begin at 7.30pm. Information and tickets are available here.