Review of ‘The Poltergeist’: “A clash of souls”

Philip Ridley authors and stars in this one-man show dealing with the unrestrainable hate feeding the foundation of a seemingly loving familly. Guillermo Názara tells us his thoughts on the play – where hauntings happen, but in another kind of way.

“A spirit that throws objects around and makes loud noises“. Not as frightening in the dictionary as the sound of the word itself. Polter-geist, a German term with which to refer to those rowdy ghosts lurking inside the house, turning a seemingly normal, nice life into a scarring experience of fear, despair and powerlessness. For centuries, societies have been fascinated by tales dealing with the supernatural – for some strange reason, giving more credit to the stories of the unknown than to the ones of what we do know. The fact is that spectres and demons do exist – and it’s no matter of belief. But those whose presence has been largely proven materialize in a different manner, tormenting our minds through the sharp broken pieces of a shattered past.

Poltergeist is not a play about spiritism, yet deals with subjects of the soul. It does not belong to the horror genre, but still the lead’s inner conflict is as horrific as a the most gore monster film. It’s not a text dealing with the paranormal, but it does question what normality is within an universe that, however much personal it is to the main character, is incredibly universal. Starring Philip Ridley as the sole actor in the production, the piece deals with one of the most mundane (even boring) occasions anyone can have in their life -a family reunion. Sasha, a struggling painter from East London, travels with his boyfriend to his brother’s for a birthday celebration. Nieces, in-laws, nosy neighbours – they are all there, the knives already out to stab deep and clean through a smokey curtain of fishy politeness. But are they the relatives’ or Sasha’s…?

It’s precisely that relativism that raises this text to prominence. It’s not a tale of good and evil, of light and dark – it’s a plot depicting the everyday suffering of everyday people. Something that happens to everyone, and from which everyone can also learn. Starting with eye-catching intensity, both script and performance (credit to the same man) strike us through depiction of a guy with probably more flaws than virtues. He’s not nice, but we like him; he may not be right, but we share his feelings; he might not be our problem, but we care about him. In some strange form, Sasha is a reflection of ourselves. We may look at him with condescendence, we pity him – but the reason why is because he’s closer to us than we would like to admit, at least out loud.

One-person shows always encompass quite a heavy bunch of challenges – its weight increasing when we’re talking about plays dwelling on the more alternative side. Poltergeist doesn’t seem to have any trouble with them. With exhilirating rythm, Ridley achieves (and succeeds by far) not only the monumental task of keeping his audience entinced through the whole evening, but also masterfully changes his register by means of nano-seconds to portray as many roles, impersonations and even memorization games as the viewer’s mind can possibly process. Seeing him act is, with no exaggeration, a huge pleasure, as it’s more than talent than you’re witnessing, it’s absolute respect and committment to both his public and the performing job.

The suffering of feeling as the odd one out in your group has been more than recurring as a theme in fiction, but the forms it can emerge are boundless and certainly this one, though not extremely original, manages to have both a voice and pulse it can reclaim as its own. Its title is, in fact, no metaphore, but an accurate portrayal of what’s to come: the haunting dangers of our existence, many times ignored or taken for granted with no reason for them to be. As Mexicans respond when Western people ask them how they can’t find it scary to praise the dead during their traditional celebration: “don’t be afraid of the dead, they can’t do anything to you. Fear the living, instead – they are the ones who can actually hurt you”.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Poltergeist plays at London’s Arcola Theatre until 29 October. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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