I recently attended a performance of Phantasmagoria – a new production at the Belgrade Theatre. I had high hopes for the show; with a name like Phantasmagoria and the promise of a ‘gripping psychological horror’, what could be better for the spooky season?
The play is about a celebrated student activist, Mehrosh (Hussina Raja), who is invited to debate with a popular and powerful political adversary… in an isolated house in the middle of a forest… As the debate draws closer, she becomes increasingly paranoid and aware that all is not as it seems…
Unfortunately, the plot of the show as a ‘psychological horror’ did not deliver for me. The political overtones of the plot are sadly, to me, as a politically active person, just not that horrifying or even surprising in of themselves. I have no doubts, however, that to someone being newly introduced to the harsh political realities of marginalised communities and the often traumatising and violent conditions it imposes upon them, this show would have been shocking and possibly even enlightening. But far-right control is simply not a potent horror-story climax anymore – it’s reality.
Ulrika Krishnamurti gave a convincing and emotive performance as the obvious allegory for the general public – pulled between personal political affiliations and an omnipresent sense of struggling for survival. She made clear that the character had to bite her tongue to safeguard her income (her life) in the face of her employer’s evil intentions – a reality people of all political leanings must consider. Tania Rodrigues, who played the far-right political adversary, adopted her role superbly and commanded the stage with a captivating performance – a fitting representation of how this brand of populism functions in the real world!
In terms of keeping an atmosphere of tension, the show does very well with its plot-related sound design and lighting choices. The introduction of ‘adverse weather’ and ‘power outages’ creates some of the most intense moments where you genuinely fear for a character’s life. The play could even have benefited from more of this stellar technological support – there were long periods of silence where makeup was being applied or candles were being lit that became awkward rather than tension building, so the introduction of intensifying rainfall or thunderclaps would have been most welcome.
I feel that for anyone who dares to peek behind the curtain of modern political discourse, the show seems too reliant on horrors we’ve seen every day to have a real impact. However, for anyone wishing for the first time to understand the plight of marginalised groups and the real-world horrors they face, this play would no doubt be chilling, not to mention an important wake-up call.