Having climbed the many steps to Theatre Upstairs, the audience enters the theatre to discover we have in fact descended into the murky depths inhabited by the soul of Legion and his three demonic companions.
Played by the author of Venom So Sweet, Roger Gregg, and named after his biblical antecedent (Mark 5:9), Legion is a wild-eyed, bearded conman-preacher, plying his trade among the frontiersmen and “savages” on the American West in the 19th century. As we enter, he is suspended in chains from the wooden supports in a hellish mineshaft. The smoky atmosphere and the ethereal vocal harmonies of his companions draw us down into this claustrophobic netherworld.
Legion tells his story, that of an exploitative and immoral chancer who uses the worst instincts of humankind for his own gain. Early on he reveals that the essence of his successful manipulation of individuals, or even of whole towns, is to figure out what it is people believe in and fear, and then preach it back to them. In this century one feels he would have a decent shot at obtaining the Republican Presidential nomination.
Venom So Sweet is a moral tale, and as Legion falls from one scurrilous adventure to the next we wonder if this journey is towards redemption or dire consequence. Redemption seems possible when this broken man happens upon an interlude of peace and happiness which comes from an unlikely source. However, given where he was when we came in, we might well fear that the worst is nigh.
Legion tells his tale against a backdrop of music and movement provided by his companions: Serpent Demon (Alicky Hess), Jezebel Demon (Juliette Crosbie) and Sorceress Demon (Madi O’Carroll). Crosbie’s menacing keyboards and Hess’s serpentine dance movement frame the action, which is also punctuated by Legions outbursts from his saxophone & slide guitar, and O’Carrol’s skeetering violin lines. (You can hear Juliet Crosbie discuss her role at greater length in the video below.)
Speaking to me after the preview performance I attended, Roger Gregg describes the origins of the show, and the process of building the production with the cast from Little Shadow Theatre Company and director James O’Connor.
“I wrote a little twenty minute prototype of [the show], which was in the Scene + Heard festival last year”, Gregg explains, “and the response was really good. And because the response was really good it was like, well okay, let’s develop it into an hour long show. And one of the girls who was involved with Theatre Upstairs said, oh it should go into Theatre Upstairs in the autumn – it would make a great Halloween type show, cos it’s dark. It depicts the darker side of humankind.”
The production feels like a collaborative ensemble, and Gregg confirms the importance of this.
“The script was all there, and the sound cues were there and then the way that I usually work is that I know all the people that are going to be involved in it. Originally I thought I was going to have three virtuoso musicians, who would play loads of different instruments. Then when that wasn’t possible, I thought well I’ll go with Alicky Hess, because it would be nice to put movement in it. Then the snake becomes this dancing sequence, because that’s what she does, so we’ve gotta feature that skill in her performance.”
Although Gregg had written the songs before rehearsal, he explains that Juliette Crosbie on keyboards and Madi O’Carroll on violin were given plenty of space to improvise and enhance the basic music. He gives the example of the dance hall song, sung by Crosbie and featuring O’Carroll’s violin.
“I’d say, well okay there’s an instrumental break here and you’re going to play something amazing on the fiddle there and then Madi works out something amazing, so it’s her solo line over it and it may vary every night. And then for the end bit I did kind of American Minimalism – we call it the Philip Glass music, it’s just arpeggios in a four chord pattern which goes up and down and I said ‘There’s no real arrangement here, Juliette, it’s just these chords and whenever I do an aside, you kind of vamp on it and when it goes back to the action you go back to the chords.’ So all the embellishments over the basic chord structure are Juliette’s.”
Venom So Sweet is entertaining, engaging and finely told yarn well worth an hour of your time. It runs from October 25th until November 5th in Theatre Upstairs on Eden Quay in Dublin (see map below). The show starts at 7pm, with matinees at 1pm on Wednesday and Saturday. You can book online here.
(Public service warning: there is strobe lighting used at some points during the production!)
Juliet talks about the music and her character in Venom So Sweet
Video from Little Shadow Theatre Company’s Facebook page. © Little Shadow Theater Co.