The Vaults, Waterloo, London, 06/2/2020.
Elf Lyons’ new show, created for this year’s Vault Festival, wouldn’t necessarily have to be a site-specific performance, but it’s difficult to imagine a better setting for this story than the long dark space of the cavern, with its crumbling walls and almost tangible scent of decay. It’s probably the most vault-like room available in the Vaults, and exactly the sort of sunless tomb where Perseus would have hunted Medusa, or vice versa.
That hunt is the primary subtext for Gorgon, which chops up Greek myths with true crime podcasts and Rising Damp in the story of Diane, a timid taxidermist with a skin condition and a troubling past, searching for her missing sister. Immediately, there’s a lot of strong work going into setting the scene. The room is filled with antiques of the Ed Gein variety – most prominent is an armchair under a red spotlight, with severed arms on the arms (as it were) and severed feet on the feet. Nearby there’s a table with severed fingers standing in for finger food. Why am I only now realising that these were all puns?
Tension in the room is raised with clever seating arrangements that squish the audience together in tall pews that prevent them from really relaxing into their seats. There’s also a laminated note to the audience which kindly and mischievously offers you an escape plan “if you get too scared.”
For all the parallels that film critics like to draw between the visceral aspects of comedy and horror, it’s rarely pulled off, or at least not in such a balanced way as Lyons manages here. The unamplified jokes can sometimes be swallowed a bit in the room, depending on where you sit, but they land well when they’re audible, and provide a welcome release valve for the mounting pressure without ever defusing it completely. One of the most striking features of the show is the presence of the trains periodically rumbling overhead like a giant iron heart beating in the rafters. Leaves on the track notwithstanding, it shows up every ten minutes or so, and never feels out of place. Each time, the tension accelerates out of control and the audience clutch at each other a little tighter.
Like a lot of live horror theatre, watching Gorgon is a gradual process of realising, okay, this isn’t going to be quite as scary as I feared it might be, and while you’ll probably come out of the show less jittery than when you went in, it does leave you free to appreciate the subtler pleasures of Lyons’ vision, particularly the innovations like the oozing and crunching live Foley work going on at one end of the hall, and the remarkable script which gradually untangles its shifting timeframe in a very satisfying way, and has a novelistic attention to metaphor, particularly the beautiful eyes, the scales on the skin, and the transforming of men into statues.
Underlying the specifics, though, is Gorgon’s bubbling core of female rage – a story of the surfeit of attention and the lack of care that’s inflicted on women’s bodies. Against the ambient cruelty which fills even Diane’s unobtrusive life, her murderous rage starts to seem like a perfectly valid response. There’s a great dichotomy in some of the most repulsive moments – grotesque comic monologues about murder and taxidermy which Lyons – looking like Stephanie from Lazytown in a dress made of human skin – delivers in a familiar “lovable klutz” mode, still apologising for her anger and for taking up space, even as she becomes the monster she was always meant to be.
If there’s anything more you might want from Gorgon, it’s an actualisation of that rage. When Lyons stalks through the shadows at full height there are brief moments when her towering fury is really felt, unadulterated by the need to crack jokes. But even though that apocalyptic promise is never quite fulfilled, this is a clever and creative bloodbath with something fascinating under the skin.