There’s a demon of a play taking over the Fugard Studio. In addition to finding out what the sound and set design team (James Webb and Rocco Pool) make of their creative possession in Part 1 of our The Demon Bride Spotlight, writer and director Louis Viljoen, along with Craig Jackson (who plays Gary) and Andrew Roux (who plays the caretaker, Mr. Samael) shares some horror genre and character insight in this second part.
Louis Viljoen’s The Demon Bride, presented by the Fugard Theatre in association with Woordfees, is quite the talking point in theatre circles at present. You either appreciated the nuances that have inspired critics like Beverly Brommert of the Cape Argus to give it a 4 star review (and exclaiming on opening night, ‘This is classic Viljoen!’), or you may decide that this is not your cup of blood. But one thing is certain, The Demon Bride is stirring things up and introducing Cape Town audience to a new local trend: merging horror and comedy for a theatrical scream of delight.
Horror informs all
Viljoen initially set off wanting to write a horror play. ‘It wasn’t necessarily going to be a horror-comedy play, but I knew that I wanted to do a full genre piece and I love horror, so I thought, “Well, that would be the most fun,” and I haven’t seen many horrors on stage [...] that I enjoyed.’ What better way to fix that than writing one himself? With that genre-informed mission in mind, he came up with the story of a bridal party stuck on a wine farm along with a creepy caretaker and a demon that shakes things up a bit. ‘I realised that would work best as sort of a horror-comedy, and if you do the horror well then you can slot any other genre in there, because horror is very flexible.’
Roux, also a horror movie enthusiast, completely endorses this vision. ‘The horror genre is a great disguise genre for everything else,’ he confirms, as it holds the audience’s attention by keeping them on edge, and has them eagerly awaiting every surprise, and then sends them home going, ‘Oh, I went to see a horror… or did I?’. Roux believes it’s the same with The Demon Bride —it’s only after the curtain call that you ‘start thinking about all the other elements, because it isn’t just a horror’.
Casting the ‘weird’ family
Asking Viljoen why he thought Jackson and Roux would be perfect in the roles of Gary and Mr. Samael, respectively, he explains that it all just unfolded naturally over time. He struck up a friendship with Jackson when they were both part of the first 2017 cast for The Play That Goes Wrong and they started talking about future collaborations. ‘Then this came up and I phoned him and said, “I have this thing,” and he said, “Well, I’m not sure…”.’
‘Rubbish,’ Jackson interjects, ‘I jumped at it!’. As further proof of their honest camaraderie, Jackson continues, ‘I think I actually read the thing immediately —I got to bed at 1am that night— and said “I’m in!”.’
‘Yes,’ Viljoen owns up, ‘he was sort of in immediately’.
For Viljoen, Jackson was always perfect to play Gary; he didn’t consider him for any of the other roles. That casting choice just made sense from the start given Jackson’s talent and style. ‘Yeah,’ adds Jackson, ‘and because he’s kind of a tjop!’ The guys briefly pause to consider the impact of Jackson’s Joburg accent as a ‘character choice’ that helps him sound like more of a ‘tjop’, but Viljoen quickly brings the conversation back to the true tjop-adjacent reason for his casting Jackson as Gary.
‘I needed an actor who’s ok with making himself look a little bit like a fool, which is what Gary is, and I don’t mean that as an insult. Craig is not an actor who is driven by a vain need to look good, and I mean all of that well.’
‘Then the casting went on and on and on, and there was this character of the creepy caretaker,’ for which the perfect actor seemed to elude Viljoen for the longest time, until something just clicked. ‘I was going to try and go older, but I couldn’t quite figure it out, until I realised, “But I just need a natural weirdo!”.’
‘Enter me!’ exclaims Roux. Listening to their exchange, it soon becomes apparent that Roux understands Viljoen’s horror-genre shorthand. This, along with the fact that he also happens to be a very talented actor, made him just the right fit for Mr. Samael. ‘I can just drop a movie reference and he’ll understand immediately,’ affirms Viljoen. ‘So, I phoned Andrew, and again he, too, said yes immediately, and that’s how it was.’
The fact that neither Jackson nor Roux hesitated when Viljoen offered them their roles, says a lot about their belief in his vision and style, as well as the cast dynamics. In fact, they all get on so well together as a cast (which also includes Sarah Grace Potter, Bianca Flanders and Carel Nel), that they’ve had a running cards tournament since The Demon Bride debuted at Woordfees earlier this year.
For Jackson, being part of this cast has ‘just been great fun!’ ‘I didn’t know any of these guys —well, I knew Loo and Carel, but the rest I didn’t know— and we get on so well.’
‘It sounds trite,’ says Roux, ‘but we’ve become a family of friends and we spend our breaks playing card games, not even talking about the text’.
Jackson elaborates on this sense of family by revealing that they even tease each other like siblings would. ‘We pick people to pick on!’
Considering how well the cast for The Demon Bride came together, Viljoen says the dynamics are just amazing. ‘I think it’s an ego-free cast with no one person going, “I am the star, and I’m going to separate myself from everything”. They just got on from the beginning [...] and that just makes the process easier if you take all of that ego crap out.’
‘It really is an egoless room, and I really mean it,’ Roux emphasises. ‘In the few productions I have done, there have been huge egos flying around and it does have an impact on the product. But this is a completely freeing experience in that you feel completely trusted: Both ways —actor to actor; actor to director— it’s completely freeing.’
Character development, inspiration, and improvisation
As far as getting a sense of their characters, Jackson says that he immediately just understood who Gary was, because Gary came off the page when he read the script. ‘Louis is probably, “No you didn’t!”, but it was all pretty much in the text for me —maybe I added a little more or less.’ Commenting on the fact that actors bring their own essence to a role —because that’s what actors do, and should do— Viljoen encourages their process of adding that ‘little more or less’, ‘as long as they don’t change any of the words’. On this precondition for subtle interpretations all three agree, because any change to the expressive, witty, and wordy text would change the rhythm and style of the type of narrative Viljoen is known for.
Though, Jackson honestly adds, ‘Louis is not precious about his text’ to the extent that nothing is allowed to change during the rehearsal process.
Roux agrees. ‘Though we have to stick to the script, there isn’t a thing of Louis being like a dictator by how he wants things —we do experiment.’ Because of Viljoen’s open-minded approach, there has been ‘stuff that has changed or been added since our Woordfees run,’ Roux continues. ‘Some of it was in the text and some of it wasn’t.’ To highlight this point, Jackson hints that Viljoen even allowed him to add his own, quirky, improvised dance to one of his Gary’s scenes to makes it feel more like his own.
Coming back to Roux’s character —who, with his ominous and creepy presence, is definitely nothing like Gary— Roux and Viljoen reveal that Mr. Samael’s development process was more movie-inspired than Jackson’s textual approach. ‘Loo originally told me to look at Martin Landau from Ed Wood with a note to keep a creep-like Transylvanian in mind,’ Roux explains. ‘Then, just out of nowhere, I was watching Robin Hood Prince of Thieves starring Alan Rickman and I just started experimenting with his character as the voice.’ Roux explains that it was especially ‘the nasal thing’ associated with Rickman’s portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham that became a source of inspiration. ‘Initially, I pitched it much higher, but Loo told me to bring it right down,’ giving Mr. Samael his own take on the Rickman effect.
Not just for horror fans
With such a clearly creepy presence in The Demon Bride —if not as part of all the characters, as is the case with Mr. Samael and the possessed bride Amelia, then definitely through the characters’ collective experience— does this mean the play is primarily aimed at horror fanatics like Viljoen and Roux?
Jackson doesn’t consider it to be that niche as far as audience appeal is concerned. ‘I don’t think I’m as fanatical as these two, but I love that kind of thing and I’ve never seen or heard of a play that’s got this horror genre —but as Louis says, they are out there. I’m very excited for the audience to try it.’
Although Viljoen hopes that those who have a special love for horror movies will find some additional gems in the production, he does not think being a horror movie buff is a prerequisite for enjoying the entertainment value The Demon Bride offers. ‘Yes, every now and then there’s a movie joke or a reference that may be meant for one person in the audience, and if that person gets it then it’s worth it. But it’s not just for horror fans, because we don’t just reference horror movies (or rather actually just movies) throughout; it’s that, along with dialogue and cool actors and everything.’ Those who ‘come in blind’ will still be able to appreciate the sentiment of the story and the great design effects.
Everyone’s talking about (the story of) Jamie
Considering which character would stand at the centre of that story, Roux immediately brings into the discussion the character of Jamie (played by Sarah Grace Potter). ‘Jamie, I think, is a very complex female character and her intentions throughout the play kind of chop and change. There is a complexity to her that is amazing and which Loo has written really well. I don’t think you can ever put your thumb on what she’s going to do next.’
Jackson agrees that at the heart of this story are the thoughts, feelings, and experience of Jamie, and how she relates to everyone else.
‘Well, if you look at the script and the character list in the script, Jamie comes first because I had to build the story around her,’ Viljoen elaborates. ‘It’s essentially her journey; well, it’s her and Gary’s, but it’s primarily hers and then Gary’s. It’s only when you can sell that idea that you can drop in all the weirdos… Samael, the Bride, and Raymond [the Groom] —they add to the world, but the main story, or the arch, stays between Jamie and Gary.’
Why then place the title focus on the Bride (played by Bianca Flanders as the character Amelia who has run away from her husband Raymond, played by Carel Nel), if Jamie’s journey is at the centre of it all?
‘It actually came from a genre trope,’ explains Viljoen. ‘If you look at, for instance, slashers… If you look at the Halloween movies, Michael Myers isn’t the lead; he’s the catalyst so that you can tell the story of the leads. In that same way the Demon Bride isn’t the lead, although she’s an absolute essential part of it —it’s around her that the story happens; it’s because of her that we get to see Jamie’s story.’
Corpsing for a scream
With Jamie as the heart of the story and Amelia, the Demon Bride, as the essence of the horror, emotions must run high when the cast enter the world of their characters. How scary does it really get on stage?
‘I get the biggest fright,’ Roux responds honestly.
‘But I break the set!’ Jackson counters. ‘I broke the door at Woordfees when my sleeve got stuck and I bent the whole thing. Eventually they got it open… and instead of opening it, I closed it and locked it again!’
‘And poor Sarah had to climb through the window in a tight dress twice because of that,’ Viljoen joins the pick-on-Jackson exchange which ‘Gary’ had set himself up for.
In revealing that he occasionally adds a gag by unintentionally ‘adjusting’ the set mid-scene, Jackson explains that the scare element for him is primarily linked to the goofiness of Gary. ‘I am scared of falling off and out of the bedroom, and off of that stage (which is quite high); there is a lot of action. It’s also very tight backstage and there is a lot of smoke, so if we don’t come out at the beginning of the play, we are probably all dead —it’s a real horror then!’
The risk of the hilariously goofy ‘Gary’ getting trapped backstage aside, Viljoen explains that ‘that’s live theatre though; things sometimes go wrong’. And as Jackson adds, ‘that’s the excitement of theatre; if something goes wrong, figuring out how you cover it up’.
Those occasional cover-ups also test a cast’s ability to keep a straight face. ‘How do you not laugh?’ asks Viljoen. ‘It becomes that thing of, “All I want to do is break down; I want to break down, I want to laugh, I want to stop the whole thing!” But we can’t, so you carry on.’
When pressed to reveal who in the cast would be the first to cave and corpse if a moment is just too funny, Roux and Jackson simultaneously exclaim, ‘Bianca Flanders!’. ‘Next I would say Sarah Potter,’ Jackson continues before Viljoen points out, ‘No, no, I would say you’re very second; you’re right up there.’
Jackson concedes, ‘Then Sarah’s very close behind me’.
‘No, no,’ Viljoen pokes at Jackson again, ‘Sarah only drops a bit, while Carel on the other hand likes to make people laugh’.
‘And he does laugh, but he hides it,’ Jackson states before turning his focus to Roux. ‘But then you just really need to get a sense of humour and laugh’.
‘I know, I know, I know,’ capitulates Roux. ‘Well’, chimes Viljoen, coming to Roux’s defence, ‘he isn’t really in a comedy, he’s in a horror —you are all in a horror— because it’s only the audience that’s in a horror-comedy.’
The same way there’s never a dull moment when observing the fun The Demon Bride banter between these three, there is also never a dull moment on stage with this play. I suddenly realise, they haven’t truly answered the ‘Is it scary on stage?’ question properly yet…
The scare effect
“The side-effects still give me the grils”, Jackson admits. ‘There’s one part that really makes the hair on my back stand up; it’s James Webb at his best!’
‘He’s got some pretty dark places he takes you to,’ Roux agrees. ‘It’s like I have a sheep that’s nearly dying and I’m going to raise it by five decibels. I think those kind of things, the effects, work really well from the front […] and along with the lighting, that’s jump-scare kind of stuff right there!’
To add to that jump-scare tension, Roux’s character Mr. Samael also tries his hand at the drawing of a seriously authentic-looking occult symbol at the start of the play, because if horror movies have taught us anything, it’s that you need a scary-looking symbol to summon the demon responsible for all the entertaining mayhem. ‘It needs to be a real occult thing, though,’ Viljoen explains, ‘because all the other symbols [which the audience will discover as the narrative unfolds] are real, too’.
‘So if a real demon rises from the earth, then that’s why,’ Viljoen warns good-humouredly.
‘And that’s a scare bonus!’ Jackson adds.
With that revelation, it may be a good time to add that The Demon Bride carries an age restriction of 18 as its high entertainment factor is packaged in a manner that includes strong language, violence, prejudice, sex … and occult appreciation. In fact, that’s not actually a warning; it might just be the perfect sell for this horror-comedy.
Scary can be sexy, too
When asked how they would sell The Demon Bride, though, Roux is quick to respond with, ‘Since Ratanga Junction is closed, come get your scares here!’
Viljoen takes this brilliant pull quote a step further: ‘Also, fewer things will break here!’ (That’s not counting Jackson’s utterly hilarious, but totally unscripted, stand-off with the door that one time.) But on a more serious note, Viljoen continues:
‘I’m hoping it’s just a really good time at the theatre. I certainly don’t think it’s just shallow entertainment, even if it does have the veneer of it. We have a lot of things, including a very sad ending. If a play has a certain look and feel there’s a sexy experience there, while still having sex scenes in it. Also, the sex scenes that are there are not meant to make you feel bad or further a character’s story or to explore their dark side; it’s just two people having sex and having fun. That’s an important thing that adds to everything else. If you throw on top of that a slick show with a lot of cool things happening, I think it’s a sexy experience. And, yes, it’s not for everyone; if you try and make something for everyone you end up making something for no one. So, it’s for us, and if we enjoy it, there have to be other people out there who will enjoy it, too.’
Quoting a favourite line from the play in response, Roux adds, ‘You can’t quantify human sexuality’.
In agreement, Jackson exclaims, ‘So come and enjoy a night of fun and laughter!’.
Go get your hilarious scare on with The Demon Bride at the Fugard Theatre Studio by 2 June 2018. Book your tickets online at www.thefugard.com to experience the horror-comedy that has everyone talking.
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