The idea of a horror-comedy is not a new one, but it is a new concept to our local theatre scene. Louis Viljoen’s The Demon Bride (on stage at the Fugard Theatre until 2 June 2018) has given its creative team the opportunity to set the theatre benchmark for a deliciously terrifying assault on the senses. It’s no surprise, then, that James Webb (sound design) and Rocco Pool (set design) were excited to be offered the opportunity to give expression to their wildest nightmares in the most entertaining way —true theatrical 3D.
About his reaction when he received the sound design brief, Webb says, ‘I was thrilled to finally be able to work on one of Louis Viljoen’s plays’. ‘His take on the genre is really interesting to me, especially with regards to the multi-layered references he makes in his writing and directing.’ As Webb’s main creative focus is usually contemporary art, The Demon Bride is a way to bring that artistic world into the realm of theatre and ‘to take some of those ideas to this production’, and to experiment with things that he wouldn’t normally do in his regular practice.
Although Pool shares Webb’s appreciation for Viljoen’s style of theatre, he admits to having been terrified and excited in equal measure when he received the set design brief. ‘The two genres [horror and comedy] are almost contradictory.’ The trick, he explains, lies not only in effectively merging these genres, but in doing so particularly for the stage, too. ‘It’s been done on film to a certain extent, with the Scary Movie franchise, which to me is focused a lot more on comedy than actual horror, and has an almost slapstick feel throughout.’ How does one strike the appropriate balance, then? ‘My feeling was always to try and drive home the horror elements as realistically and scarily as possible; to let the audience buy into the reality and comedic charm first, which would make the horror a little more accessible and believable.’
The terror inspiration
The Demon Bride set design brief took Pool a bit out of his comfort zone, as he admits that he’s not a huge fan of horror at this stage of his life. That said, he ‘certainly tried to draw some inspiration from some of the classics in the horror genre’. ‘Especially with Louis’s extensive knowledge of the genre, I think I maybe drew more inspiration from him than any other external source.’
In tapping into this accentuated horror element of Viljoen’s vision —horror being the main realm within which the characters experience the story, and the comedy but an added layer exclusively for the audience's pleasure— Webb adds that he greatly relied on instinct. He found inspiration in ‘both the stylised sound design of 1960s Italian horror films and the great work done by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, as well as more contemporary Japanese horror films that use sound as a kind of presence in the films’. With that eclectic frame of reference, Webb wanted to create sound that took on the presence of ‘a character in the play’. Viljoen gave Webb the space within which to execute that vision. ‘Louis let me carry the horror in the sound, treating the play as a serious horror film and not looking for comedic elements in the audio.’
The creative character
After having seen this play three times —twice at Woordfees and once at the Fugard Theatre during its current run— I can state with conviction that The Demon Bride soundscape is so immersive that its presence definitely equates to that of a character or a performer. In Webb’s own words, ‘The sound is […] a physical force in The Demon Bride’. The set design, with its heightened sense of theatricality, leaves one with a similar feeling. ‘One could probably have that take on it,’ Pool reflects. ‘I think, to me as the designer, it almost feels vain to say that; to me it’s more of a classic haunted house and rather an extension of the demon bride than it is an independent character.’
Clear directorial vision
Working with a writer and director with a clear, strong, and distinct style and approach to theatre isn’t new territory for either Webb or Pool. Webb has done sound design for Nicola Hanekom, Marthinus Basson, and Jaco Bouwer. Pool has also done set design for Basson and Bouwer, and for Christiaan Olwagen. This is an indication of the high standard of creative expression audiences can expect with Webb and Pool teaming up with Viljoen to create a full assault on the senses (along with the lighting design by Benjamin du Plessis and costume design by Widaad Albertus). All the creative components of The Demon Bride come together in the most exquisitely terrifying way to help create an experience where screams and squeals merge perfectly with gasps and giggles.
‘All those directors have given me carte blanche,’ says Webb. ‘They know what kind of weirdness they’ll get when we work together.’ It’s that fantastic weirdness, along with the fact that Viljoen has collaborated on some of Webb’s projects, that has made The Demon Bride such ‘a wonderful opportunity to work with [Viljoen] in realising his play’.
Pool adds that he also focused largely on Viljoen’s vision for his creative cues. One could even say he used it as a how-to guide to creating horror, as he explains that he looked to the script to understand the demands of a very realistic setting, resulting in Viljoen’s narrative to a great extent dictating the terms of his design, ‘not only in layout but also in style’.
With what is a surprisingly spirited sound and set design in this dead scary context, Webb and Pool’s collaboration with Viljoen —which gives expression to the latter’s narrative about a wedding party trapped in the winelands on a farm that reflects the presence of its demonic mistress— also results in some fantastic revelations as complement to the antics of the actors.
To make sure that these sources of amazement are delivered in a manner that does this niche genre justice, Viljoen and Webb have worked on ‘some really exciting surprises in the play’, says Webb. ‘The combination of all the design elements under his direction will be most entertaining to the audience.’
‘Louis’s style is incredibly filmic to me, in a bit of a Tarantino-esque way,’ adds Pool, ‘with his witty and at times almost rapid-fire dialogue.’ ‘So, in terms of designing a set, I knew I couldn’t go too “conceptual”; I needed to treat the script more like I would a screenplay.’ In doing so, Pool explains that he created a location that he then dressed ‘with bits and bobs, without creating clutter or distracting from the action’.
With this decision to create alluring surprises in a screenplay-like and location-inspired fashion, will those familiar with Pool’s designs find features not usually associated with his work when they come see The Demon Bride?
‘I needed to put my personal style aside to better serve the script and Louis’s vision. I don’t necessarily think that Realism is my strong suit, but I was lucky enough to be Saul Radomsky’s associate designer on Clybourne Park, which was essentially a masterclass in realism set design with a twist. Every script asks for something different and one needs to be able to adapt to those requirements. I think this set is more in line with my design for The Eulogists, also written by Louis, which was straight Realism. This is somewhere in between that and where I find myself usually.’
Although Pool has dealt with sets on the scale of The Demon Bride’s before —it impressively takes up the full Fugard Studio stage in width and height— he admits that along with stepping out of his conceptual comfort zone, it has been technically challenging as, from a design perspective, they needed to add ‘all the effects and people without becoming too gimmicky’. For that reason, the team went ‘lo-fi’ with their effects.
Apart from the appeal one already finds in the merging of ‘all the creative elements: costumes, sound, set, lighting, and effects’, Pool thinks The Demon Bride as horror-comedy should capture the attention of audiences because it’s so ground-breaking. ‘I can’t think of any local or new plays that fall into this genre —it’s a chance to see something you don’t often get to see; something out of the ordinary.’
In addition to the fact that it’s ‘tremendously entertaining’, Pool points out that The Demon Bride isn’t just a horror and a comedy; it’s also a love story with suspense and heartfelt moments. It does what any good horror-comedy should do: ‘It’s honest, yet it deceives you’. ‘I think it’s as close to edge-of-your-seat theatre as you can get.’
‘This play is another aspect of Louis’s amazing imagination,’ Webb declares, ‘and fans of his work will be in for a few surprises —and for those who don’t know his work, this will be an exciting trial by fire.’
Go see for yourself why wine and matrimony are not always a pairing made in heaven, but rather one fermented in hell by booking your tickets online at www.thefugard.com. Louis Viljoen's The Demon Bride haunts the Fugard Studio until 2 June 2018.