BLOG Alice Vernon

NWR Issue 109

Still Life, Aberystwyth Arts Centre

On Wednesday 21 October, I went to see Mappa Mundi’s chilling ‘Still Life’ at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. It was an exploration into Victorian photography, ghost stories, and the uncanny fascination with death that links the two together. Using disguised technology and elaborate magic tricks, Mappa Mundi created an utterly terrifying experience that I’m sure MR James would have been delighted to see.

Please bear in mind that I am a complete wimp. I jump when post falls through the letterbox. ‘Still Life’’s 12+ rating made me gravely underestimate how scary it would be, but at least I know my adrenaline response is working well. Since I went on my own, I can’t gauge if the rest of the audience shared my nervous disposition.

As soon as I took my seat, I was simultaneously unnerved and delighted by the set. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. On one side was a huge mirror browning with dirt and age. On the other was a similarly large photograph – a screen display which would soon become my worst nightmare. Authentic-looking portraits of ‘Still Life’’s characters dotted the stage among piles of old furniture and strange shapes covered by sheets. The narrator (Richard Nichols), a photographer tortured by his own morbid obsession with capturing images of the dead, sat silent for a few minutes while a clock ticked, as though preparing himself for the approaching tour of horrors. The play operated as a series of short stories introduced by the relevant photograph and when the first one began – a dark tale of a harpist and her possessive patron – I found it deliciously creepy. Mappa Mundi quickly delivered a sharp shock to my heart in the form of a wall that stretched around the murdered musician’s fingers and face. When I go to plays, I try to keep a mental record of points to include in my review. At this point, however, my train of thought became very frantic and colourful indeed. Still twitching in terror, I was immediately thrown into the next story – a take on MR James’ ‘The Mezzotint’ – in which the digital screen was used effectively (I watched it through my fingers) to show a witch shift closer and closer to the front of the photograph before appearing in extreme close-up and with a sudden piercing scream that startled me so much I think my spirit transcended my body for a few seconds. The photographer continued his tour of the supernatural, exploring a demonic clown, the ghost of a theatre-goer, and a re-imagining of James’ ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ before focusing on his own personal haunting and growing fascination with the period’s popular death portraits. ‘Still Life’ came to a dark but somehow touching conclusion befitting the protagonist of such a gloomy story. My nerves were in tatters, though.

Performed with only a cast of five, ‘Still Life’ was also a triumph in rapid costume and character changes. François Pandolfo and Keiron Self moved with ease between stories, Gwawr Loader suddenly appeared as a singing spirit in the audience, and Lizzie Rogan gave a sympathetic performance of the photographer’s long-suffering wife. The costumes were convincing and intricately made, and everything from the gas lamps to the antique binoculars gave ‘Still Life’ an authentic and melancholy atmosphere. Directed by Lynne Seymour, the production caught its audience in a vice-like grip, only letting go when we were all suitably pale and uncomfortable.

Whilst I will probably need a few months to recover, ‘Still Life’ was an excellent reanimation of some of the most chilling ghost stories of the Victorian era. It was a great way to welcome Hallowe’en and the dark evenings.

Alice Vernon is a PhD candidate in the department of English and Creative Writign at Aberystwyth University.


previous blog: ‘Wilde Without the Boy’, Aberystwyth Arts Centre
next blog: A Cartographer’s Den


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