Christopher York is a writer and actor. In addition to being in four Creation shows, he’s been a recipient of the High Tide First Commissions Award and a member of Old Vic 12 Shortlist 2016. Chris’ show Build a Rocket recieved rave reviews in 2018 at the Edinburgh Fringe and Stephen Joseph Theatre.
For me, the toughest challenge a play’s construction presents is the plot. When writing, your characters usually find a way to parasitically use you as a conduit for their dialogue, in turn, the words on the page becomes instinctual.
However, the intricacies of structuring narrative, keeping an audience on its toes, that can be nightmarish. Your protagonists watch you blindly struggle with beginnings, middles and ends – no advice in sight. Luckily for me, with regard to my adaptation of The Pit and the Pendulum, Edgar Allan Poe did all the hard work. It’s a lush three act structure, even as a short story, he takes us on a gnarly expansive journey.
An adaptation of this type, however, brings with it a myriad of obstacles – some of which go beyond my work behind the laptop. The moment you begin adapting a famous work, you lean into a generations long issue; doing justice to one of the masters of gothic horror and his fans. There is an immediate weight of expectation. So, the playwright come adapter writhes in a Scarborough coffee shop asking; what can be cut? What needs to be expanded on? Will I be haunted by ravens in the dead of night if I mess this up? That’s a challenge, especially turning printed prose into what will be live broken verse.
In written works, there is a need for exposition, and Edgar Allan Poe’s exposition is bloody beautiful, but on stage, that can be sadly superfluous. As a playwright, the challenge lies in making sure you’re telling a visceral story that feels alive and active – all too often we can become accidental novelists. I don’t doubt the most powerful parts of this production will be where I’ve written a silent stage direction, something for the actor to live in. And in that respect both me and Mr Poe will become superfluous as auteurs.
My writing career is in its relative infancy. The Pit and the Pendulum will be my third fully produced play and I am quickly learning my work as an actor continues to influence my work on the page. I have performed in four different Creation productions since 2013; Henry V, Macbeth, Hamlet and Dracula. I am constantly trying to find a naturalistic musicality in my writing, something that feels raw and human, but sounds aurally sexy, theatrical.
I don’t think it is any accident then, I’ve had some of my happiest times in rehearsal rooms and on stage when performing Shakespeare. It’s fit poetic stuff, while being stories that have a universality, human truths, that contain an underlying social commentary. So when offered the opportunity to adapt this short story for stage, I knew I wanted to create a piece that was politically pro-active but that felt raw and universal.
Our story follows the narrative structure of Poe’s work, we use some of his gorgeous language too, but beyond that, this is a new play, a very Creation play. There are no mention of gendered pronouns in Edgar Allan Pope’s The Pit and the Pendulum story, so does it have to be a man’s story? Mentions of The Spanish Inquisition are actually incredibly thin, so what modern parallel could I draw upon? How could I make this story more relevant? It was important for me to find a contemporary story.
Horror is always more harrowing when it pries on an audience’s prejudices, their fears and paternal instincts. By creating a female character who had stakes, something to lose, something to fight for, I knew we would have a more compelling theatricality.
So many of our greatest modern heroines, especially in cinema, have come from the horror genre. And so much of the research that has informed the genre conventions of this production has been cinematic. I want to scare my audience, and the resurgence of the horror genre in the last decade has led me to believe we can take that into theatres too. In his series, The Secrets of Cinema, Mark Kermode argued the case for location being one of the key features for making the best horror films truly chilling.
By setting the action in the Middle East, I hope to challenge the archetypes and assumptions we have of cultures. Thrillers ask big questions, and by taking the audience to a foreign land, I wonder if I can maybe play with their hidden prejudices and xenophobia; ugly, sociological narratives that I know I have been exposed to since 9/11. What if then, we could make an audience question every perceived notion they ever had about, what is, unequivocally, a beautiful part of the world.
Which brings me to the next huge obstacle of this interpretation. Me. White, western man writes adaptation set in the Middle East. White, western man writes adaption about an oppressed woman. My research had to be bloody thorough and even then, when dealing with the cultural and bilingual elements of this play, I had to be incredibly sensitive. That meant the casting of this production was different to the norm. Not only were we looking for a fantastic story-teller, but we were also looking for someone who could be a collaborator and dramaturg. We found that artist. I hope this means we have created something that is sensitive, challenging but thoroughly fair. I want to make sure the political elements of this piece are grounded in respect and love. During the research of this play, I have fallen in love with a country and culture – and continually become envious and deeply saddened at the colonial and empiric past of my ancestors.
All that being said, I am a Northern writer, whatever that means and a working-class writer, whatever that means. I hope this marriage of horror and culture will be garnished with good humour and sass. I think the best way to scare people is to draw them into a false sense of security and laughter is a great tool for that. A great way to ask big questions of audiences is to get them on side, a big old dose of silliness will do that to. Afsaneh and I will hopefully create a badass character, full of maternity and fire, but a quick witted one at that. This play will scare people, but I think fundamentally, it is a play about love.
- Christopher York, writer and adaptor of The Pit and the Pendulum