The Collector: Dungeons and Drama

Open House Theatre’s ­staging of Mark Healey’s play draws ­stark parallels with the Fritzl and ­Kampusch imprisonments

Captor Frederick Clegg (Alan Burgon) and captive Miranda Grey (Julia C. Thorne) in a chilling, perverse search for love | Photo: Open House Theatre

Photo: Open House Theatre

To say that John Fowles’ book The Collector is controversial is something of an understatement. First published in 1963, it tells the story of Frederick Clegg, a socially awkward young man who collects butterflies. Infatuated with the beautiful and (to him) unapproachable art student Miranda Grey, he resorts to “collecting” her, imprisoning her in a specially-designed, underground cellar in the hope that in time, his affection will be reciprocated.

There are uncomfortable parallels between The Collector and the kidnapping of Natascha Kampusch in a Vienna suburb in 1998, as well as the more recent Josef Fritzl case, and the book has been cited internationally as an influence in a number of serial killer and abduction cases. Although there is no direct evidence that Wolfgang Priklopil, Kampusch’s captor, was aping Fowles’ novel, the similarities are so striking as to be uncanny. As such, it’s a bold decision by Open House Theatre to present Mark Healey’s stage adaptation of the novel, and one that largely pays off.

 

Captor Frederick Clegg (Alan Burgon) and captive Miranda Grey (Julia C. Thorne) in a chilling, perverse search for love | Photo: Open House Theatre

Captor Frederick Clegg (Alan Burgon) and captive Miranda Grey (Julia C. Thorne) in a chilling, perverse search for love | Photo: Open House Theatre

Captivating the audience

The Theater Brett is an ideal location for this tale, a stark and unprepossessing venue that itself feels much like a bunker. The black stone floor is framed by pale, unadorned walls and lit by bare overhead lights. The furniture in the foyer is a motley collection of scavenged cast-offs. There’s no upholstery or decoration.

The sense of immersion is immediate and powerful. The performance space is a black box with a sparse, minimalist set: bed, table, two chairs, wardrobe, chest of drawers, screen. Shrewd use of lighting cues and music convincingly conveys the passing of time and occasional changes of place.

The play opens after the abduction has occurred and unfolds almost exclusively in the cellar that Frederick (Alan Burgon) has crudely converted into an apartment for the captive Miranda (Julia C. Thorne). We may think the morality is clear, the play challenges, but “the truth is much more complicated.” Fretting with his hands, Frederick struggles for words: “This is my chance to tell things from my side.”

And so he does, sketching how he came to equip the dungeon and secure his prize. Miranda’s revival from unconsciousness then precipitates the first in a series of tense, probing interactions between the two that irrevocably alter their lives.

Fowles insisted that his book was a class-conscious meditation on the risks engendered by power wielded by those underequipped to handle it. But Healey’s script wisely ignores this interpretation. It does, however, dither somewhat, alternating between realism, theatricality and allegory.

The claustrophobic setting is rich with dramatic potential, but unlike Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, Healey opts for a broader address. This results in some occasionally clumsy speechifying from both characters as they attempt to emphasise what they represent. Moods shift abruptly depending on the needs of each scene, not always in sync with the narrative arc as a whole. The allegorical nod to The Tempest is implicit throughout.

Both Burgon and Thorne work hard to breathe life into these complex personalities. It’s not easy. Frederick is a difficult character to inhabit psychologically, while Miranda is written as largely reactive, with little opportunity to express herself. Burgon does a great job conveying Frederick’s almost autistic awkwardness – hunched, shifting balance from one foot to the other, clasping his hands together for reassurance.

Where it just doesn’t quite gel is in his voice. The flat, insistent monotone is somehow at odds with the very introverted body language, and lacks the nervousness that the physical contortions suggest. Either would be a legitimate reading: A detached voice requires a more composed presentation (think Norman Bates in Psycho), while an agitated physical presence needs a more pathetic, maybe even hysterical tone. Still, it’s creepy enough, and at times very hard to watch.

 

Sadism comes to a showdown

Photo: Open House Theatre

Photo: Open House Theatre

Once he realises the extent of his power over Miranda, he begins to dominate her more overtly. Here, he becomes genuinely scary. His jealousy is lurid, the hectoring accusations sting, and his utter incomprehension of any kind of moral culpability is well expressed.

“Just because you can’t express your feelings doesn’t mean they’re not deep,” he insists. But whatever they are, empathy isn’t one of them.

Thorne similarly thrives best in the moments when she’s in control of the exchanges. “You always squirm one step lower than I can go,” she snipes at her captor in one withering put-down. As a privileged arts student, she’s eminently believable. What’s missing is a real sense of fear, which is not helped by the part as written, changing abruptly from chummy to hostile, and giving little opportunity to speak from the heart. Her few monologues, though, are consistently effective in fleshing out the role. And the horrific question lingers: What would you do?

It’s a testament to the overall calibre of the production that one can afford to indulge in thematic questions. In staging a challenging, confrontational work like The Collector, Open House Theatre is continuing to set a competitive standard for the English-language stage in Vienna, in what is fast turning into a triumphant first season for the company.

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