Fourth Monkey are back with another stellar ensemble piece, providing late night gothic horror - even more frightening, as it is based on a real-life horror story.
The sheer quantity of blood spattered across the stage gives the impression that the deeds onstage are even more gory than they are
Countess Ezesbet Bathory was a Hungarian aristocrat who was the most prolific female serial killer in history. She was part of the inspiration for Dracula, and the stories around her say she used to bathe in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth and beauty. The show follows her marriage to Ferenc Nádasdy, his eventual death (providing a gloriously ironic funeral speech), and their shared love of torture. The Countess continues to sadistically torture and drain the blood from peasant girls, eventually setting up a school for young aristocratic ladies in order to maintain a supply of victims.
The show relies heavily on its ensemble, who are exquisite. They handle a vast array of characterisation and performance styles, from a frighteningly realistic baying mob to utterly convincing trees, so much so that you forget the forest is made of people. There is so much violence and abuse in the piece that effectively communicating this to the audience symbolically relies heavily on the physicality of the ensemble, who rise to the challenge magnificently.
Even the Countess is played by three different actors, each bringing something different to the role, from a falsely youthful innocence to a sadist who has complete freedom to run wild, to eventually become the commanding presence of the eldest Countess. However, whilst the youngest and eldest versions of the Countess had clear objectives and character arcs, the middle version was somewhat less developed as a character.
The design is exactly what the show calls for, the three Countesses donning wonderfully gothic gowns, with carefully sculpted hair and makeup, clearly taking inspiration from the film Bram Stoker's Dracula. The sheer quantity of blood spattered across the stage gives the impression that the deeds onstage are even more gory than they are. The costume accessories that represent the blood and gore of the tortured women are successfully grotesque and hit home - one of the most powerful moments in the show is when we see the victims put on their wounds onstage. The sound design, too, is wonderfully eerie, while the lighting design is simple and effective.
While the show works very well in the round, there are some issues with sightlines on the corners, when key action occurs behind the backs of cast members. Some of the ensemble are better than others at their onstage reactions to the various torture methods used; as soon as that believability slips, the fear and tension created drains away. A few characters are barely introduced, leaving them open to misinterpretation, particularly Anna, who confusedly left some of the us in the audience under the impression that she was a representation of death. Occasional plot points suffered from similar confusion: when the Countess calls on the ‘Black Spirit’, it is slightly perplexing as to why.
All in all, I would recommend this show to anyone who loves fairy tales and gothic stories. It provides exactly what they would want from the genre.