Written and directed by Benjamin Henson
Presented by Fractious Tash | Q Theatre, Auckland | August 14-29
Let me preface this review by saying there are spoilers ahead. Sort of.
I can’t imagine a show that seems more specifically made for me as an audience member than Benjamin Henson’s Not Psycho. The very nature of the story relies on an understanding of horror/thriller film conventions to fully appreciate, as well as obviously being familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. And that’s also, ultimately, the best and worst thing about it.
The main storyline—or the most seemingly straightforward—is essentially a loose remake of the original Psycho set in Greater Manchester, 1997 from the perspective of Norman Bates. The crisp black and white Americana of the original is replaced by a gritty kitchen sink quality that’s quintessentially British. But that’s also an oversimplified view of the script—it’s a highly meta deconstruction and devilish parody too, refusing to play by conventional narrative rules. For every scene set in what appears to be reality, we’re given an equal dosage of cinephile fever dream.
Its convoluted structure immediately recalls David Lynch’s triptych of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire, blurring fantasy and reality with complete disregard for audience expectations, insisting on repeated viewings to pick up ‘clues’ or ‘symbols’ in the script. On that note, it also feels undeniably filmic at times, clearly owing more to the screen than to the stage.
Even its style and visual exuberance recalls the Italian slasher genre of the Giallo, operating on the level of a psychedelic visual feast rather than any character arcs. We end up watching it for pure spectacle rather than for any coherent sense. The very definition of style over substance.
While the show is a product of devised theatre, Henson is still credited as the writer of the ‘words’ and his talents in this regard should not be underestimated. For every rule Not Psycho breaks, there is never a moment it doesn’t feel purposeful, even if it might not always be successful. But it’s in the chair of the director that Henson really shines. He has a clear and uncompromising vision and creates a world on stage to match it.
Don’t be mistaken though. This isn’t some impenetrable fortress or impossible narrative maze. There’s a clear logic or symmetry to the play’s manic structure. This is the kind of show that rewards viewers for the effort they put into it. The rare show that forces audiences to conform and play by its rules rather than the other way around. Not all viewers will consider the show worth the effort it requires though, and it’s hard to blame them.
But does it mean anything? I don’t know. If there is meant to be some sort of social commentary about sex or violence in media, I think the show wildly misses the mark. Everything presented to the audience is done in a manner to titillate and dazzle. And when we are provoked to think it’s because of the play’s dream logic, not because of any profound moral or ethical issue.
It’s impossible to fault the performances or craft of anyone involved in the production. Everyone brings their best to this bold and experimental production. The cast are given the demanding task of not playing characters so much as tropes, funhouse distortions of their predecessors. But what they lack in emotional depth they make up for in presence.
Edwin Beats as Matthew, a modern day Norman Bates, has by far the hardest job of the cast. He plays a film geek with an obsession with Psycho and your expected mummy issues, but neither the performer nor the audience is given an expected character arc to follow. Instead we get fragments of his crumbling psychosis, which the entire show is filtered through. He lends the role the much-needed ‘nice guy’ element that Anthony Perkins had in the original, though these moments are usually overshadowed by the script’s need for him to act emotionally disturbed or frightened. It’s undoubtedly a brave and immensely watchable performance, despite never adding up to a completely real person. His scenes set amongst the video store resonate best, filled with glimpses of actual humanity. The problem is that these are few and far between, forcing us to latch onto those fragmentary scenes instead.
Donogh Rees often steals the show in what is the most deranged interpretation of ‘mother’ that you can imagine. She’s an oedipal nightmare, stumbling and slurring across the stage. Virginia Frankovich is similarly engaging, amping up the paranoia of Marion 2.0 to frightening levels.
The rest of the cast play a wide variety of characters or tropes to mixed success. Some clichés are better than others, after all. And while the grotesque caricatures peppered on stage are often interesting they occasionally become one-note and repetitive. As a pair of interrogating officers, Kevin Keys and Bryony Skillington are a lot of fun the first time around, but lose steam after repeated appearances. Julia Croft’s psychiatric doctor is far more effective, both comedically and horrifically.
Christine Urquhart does it once again with her impeccable set design. While mostly a bare stage, there are enough versatile set elements to allow for the rapid scene changes and overlaps to play out swiftly. And the shower curtains that close off the side of the stage are a perfect touch, giving us a murky transparent view of the actors offstage. But the real centerpiece is the on-stage shower. While it’s never used quite as effectively as one might hope, featuring rather arbitrarily in the story, its nevertheless impressive.
Rachel Marlow’s lighting design is equally important, guiding us through the multiple layers of narrative or playing up the filmic visuals. While Thomas Press’s sound design might slightly disappoint at first with its lack of Bernard Herrmann influence, it functions perfectly to help relocate us to a trashy ’90s Britain.
Before the show, we are told by a slip of paper that this is “based on a true story” apparently. It’s hard to imagine and feels completely irrelevant and sensationalist. And even if we want to ignore it, throughout the show we are reminded of this loose framing device. I’m curious as to the reasoning behind it because it never seems to serve the text.
As I write this review I still find myself making connections between the original Psycho and Henson’s somewhat baffling metatext. It’s a show that rewards fans of Psycho with knowing laughs and pauses for reflection. Will everyone appreciate the perfect use of the story’s MacGuffin, the deranged reenactments of Janet Leigh’s paranoid driving, or the oft-quoted dialogue? Probably not.
Not Psycho is made with masterful craft and control over its medium. Yet it’s also just as cold—if not colder—than the original, without the benefit of being a prototype of its genre or a truly game-changing response piece. Perhaps the best way to appreciate the show isn’t to approach it like a puzzle needing to be solved, but as an abstract painting full of infinite interpretations, despite having a clear internal logic of its own. At its best Not Psycho doesn’t parody or pull apart the slasher genre, it just embodies it.
Like our very own Hitchcock, Henson is a British import who promises to make a significant impact on the cultural landscape of Auckland theatre. With Not Psycho he makes his most unique and unrestrained mark on our stages yet.