Jen Silverman’s The Moors is among the vanguard of spooky plays that have hit London’s theatres for Halloween season.
Just in case the UK government’s theatrics over the last month did not spook you enough or if you want a few more scares to prepare you for the Chancellor’s fiscal plan announcement coming up on Halloween day. Coincidence?
The Moors is a rather discomfiting story of two sisters, Agatha and Huldey, who live out an existence that is as daunting, dark and desolate as the miserable moorland they call their home. Their lives are as bleary as the moors are bleak, as devoid of spirit as the moors are void of verdancy. They wait to receive a young governess, arriving imminently at their mansion to look after a child who, as it turns out, does not exist. Not yet, at least.
Sophia Pardon's bloodcurdling set design sets The Moors apart
It is eerie how the moorland, with its cold emptiness and acrid barrenness, mirrors the personas of the people inhabiting it. What’s more, it’s remarkable how set designer Sophia Pardon is able to recreate an environment every bit as powerful and evocative. Inside one of London's tiniest theatres, no less!
As the bee entered the theatre, it spotted an empty seat and ambled over to a lady on the next seat to ask if the seat was available. The woman was sitting still as a statue and staring unblinkingly into space as though she had seen a ghost. She did not seem to hear the bee’s question, and/or did not deign it worthy to interrupt her trance to answer. The encounter sent a shiver down the bee’s spine, and the bee even stupidly wondered if the audience had been asked to be mean to one another to complement the unnerving character of the setting. (Naturally, she turned out to be a cast member. The cast members seated themselves among the audience when they were not active in a scene.)
An eclectic mix of powerful characters lends The Moors amazing depth and resonance
The new governess arrives at the mansion, appearing rather normal and uninteresting compared to the two erratic sisters — but only at first. She, of course, wastes no time in registering the mysteriousness of her circumstances. Although lured into the mansion under false pretences and struggling to make sense of each household member’s peculiar craziness, she does not leave. Like the quicksand that covers vast swathes of the moors, the sisters’ house seems to have a way about it that absorbs its inhabitants into its dark recesses, transmuting each character into a peculiar kind of crazy, and the governess was not immune to this influence.
Agatha, for example, carries a freakishly acerbic social manner. She favours efficiency over happiness, desires control over quiet expectation, and chooses her own morality as a matter of convenience rather than deriving from any degree of moral absolutism. The bee was in equal parts amazed and horrified simultaneously — not only at this character’s craziness but also the rather unassailable sanity of her logic (or so it sounded to the bee at the time).
Huldey, in many ways a polar opposite in character to her sister, is attention-seeking, jealous and fame-hungry. (Quite naturally, the sisters hate each other). A different kind of toxic compared to her sister, but toxic nevertheless. She is conceited to the extent of believing that the platitudes she writes in her diaries every day are nothing short of literary marvels. She is delusional about the nature of fame and tremendously vulnerable to anyone who dangles it in front of her, and she is impressionable to the extent that one can’t tell if she is an adult or a child.
And then there is the housemaid with her terrifyingly vacant facial expression and the conviction that she is, in fact, not one, not two, but three different identities (perhaps even more) locked into one body, with only one allowed to manifest at a time. Going by Mallory, Marjorie or Margaret at different points in the story, she weaves in and out of the characters’ lives with the sinister look of someone who cares for very little in the world and regards everyone and everything with contempt by default — the archetype of people who, because they are impossible to read, and because they make you question everything you ever thought you knew about human life, make you feel terrifyingly afraid of the unknown.
Be warned that you will spend a great chunk of the play feeling bewildered, and perhaps even exasperated, at the seemingly random and insensible arbitrariness of it all.
The characters will challenge your existing mental models of how human brains work. To put it succinctly, Silverman’s play requires the kind of bent of mind one needs before reading a Franz Kafka model — abandon your existing notions of good and bad, right and wrong, happy and sad, and seek to learn afresh. After all, what point is there in asking why Kafka’s protagonist in Metamorphosis suddenly wakes up and finds himself transformed into an insect?
Instead, find amusement in the play’s powerful mix of boldness and subtlety, evident for example in how the sisters’ pet, a very large and very depressed dog, becomes inseparable friends with a moor-hen that struggles to fly and constantly crash-lands, and which the dog thinks is god. *Shrugs*
That is not to say you should leave your brains at home and simply accept the eccentric, even outlandish, events unfolding before you as normal. No, Silverman delivers us many pockets of profound insights on the human condition. As the characters amble through life armed with their own idiosyncratic brands of philosophy, their made-for-convenience moralities, and their peculiar, individualistic interpretations of their existence, the play delivers a number of extremely evocative moments.
If at all the bee should find fault with the play, the only thing it could complain about is the dog and moorhen storyline, which felt both unnecessary and disjointed from the main plot. The moorhen’s quips felt rather shallow and inane against the other characters’ unravellings in the play. As for the dog, the bee thought its rants about its depressing life were a little too over the top to be taken seriously.
In all, the play kept the bee spellbound with its immersive design, flawless execution, and a couple of brilliant twists in the end that displayed not only Phil Bartlett’s fearlessly bold direction, but also Silverman’s unapologetic subversiveness and the cast’s delightful versatility.
Watched October 2022 at The Hope Theatre, London.