TECHNIQUE / Things that make you go 'argh': Sarah Hemming talks to Simon Moore, the director of Misery, and others about committing acts of extreme violence to the stage

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The Independent Culture
When two people fainted at last Saturday's preview of his new show, the writer and director Simon Moore was uncertain how to react. 'A part of me was alarmed; another part was thinking 'GREAT]]' '

This may sound a little callous, until you learn that Moore's play is an adaptation of Stephen King's thriller Misery. King's novel, in which a romantic novelist is held hostage by a sadistic fan after she rescues him from a car crash, has already been turned into a chilling film. But whereas celluloid lends itself well to the catalogue of torture and mutilation that Annie Wilkes perpetrates on her captive hero, it is harder to smash limbs on stage.

'There's much less violence in the play than there is in the book,' says Moore. 'Principally because it's very hard to stage violence in a convincing way. Also, I think the reason we have much tougher censorship laws on stage than in film or books is that when you stage things they move into a different area - it is more disturbing to a lot of people.'

The two people who fainted on Saturday did so at the infamous 'hobbling scene' (when Annie expresses her discontent by taking an axe to Sheldon's foot) - which suggests Moore must be doing something right. He did not find it easy.

'Most of the problems with staging violence have to do with the fact that you have to carry on. It's as simple as that on a practical level. In a film you can absolutely splatter the set with blood and you can spend three days getting the shots you want for it. With theatre you have to have something which is safely repeatable. A lot of the ideas you have are great but they'll only work two times out of four. And if you spray blood around, you've got to remember that the next scene's three months later - and our hero's shirt is still covered in blood.'

Blood is not necessarily the director's best friend. We have probably all seen bad Shakespeare productions where no amount of the stuff can convince you of the horror of violence.

'There is the difficulty of avoiding being comical,' agrees Moore. 'I think it's absolutely on a knife-edge. I fully expect - and indeed we get - the gamut of reactions, from people screaming and fainting to people laughing uproariously. You have to ration blood. You have to have somewhere to climb to, and once you start with the gore then there's nowhere to go but - more gore]'

Moore had several attempts before he found a way of staging the 'hobbling scene'. 'I had an idea for how to stage the play overall. Because it is a stage two- hander you inevitably have imposed on you a lot of darkness. So I began to associate Annie's violence with growing darkness: that was my overall approach to it. But I've had more disagreement from the crew about this than anything else. Half of them say, 'Oh, that doesn't work; you can't do it realistically', and the other half say, 'You've got to do it much more realistically'. We all have a slightly different set of goalposts. I think there is an atmosphere of violence in the book that I've tried to recreate and that is very menacing in the play. Also I think the main thing is not to set out with overly technical ideas. The simplest things can be very scary, and you have to use the advantages of theatre. If you have a good actor, and he comes on and stands half in the light and half in the dark, it can be terrifying.'

'Misery' opens tomorrow at the Criterion, London W1 (071-839 4488)

Peter Gill on grievous bodily harm in 'The Murderers'

Peter Gill directed Daniel Mornin's 'The Murderers' at the Cottesloe in 1983. In the focal scene a group of Protestant vigilantes beat up a Catholic in a bar storeroom, ending up by screwing a broken beer-glass into his face. Several people were sick in the interval. And when they came back the murder was still going on.

'That pulled the rug from under their feet,' recalls Gill. 'It was appalling, but I think it made the point that you can't tie murder up in a neat way . . . You have to disengage when you are doing anything of that kind. You have to treat it as a technical exercise - as something you are trying to achieve and repeat every night. A lot of it is to do with assuring the safety of those involved. You can't have pretend fighting - you have actual fighting which is planned. You quickly end up saying, 'That's gratuitous', 'That's ludicrous', 'That's too expert'. You need a fight director to help you make it look less expert. We had a glass made of sugar glass and a real beer- glass - you make the audience worried about what's going to happen and then at the last minute you switch glasses. That makes it shocking - they know the person isn't being killed, but if you do it well you can convince them more on stage than on film.'

Deborah Warner on Gloucester's blinding in 'Lear'

Deborah Warner has staged the gruesome blinding of Gloucester in 'King Lear' twice (for Kick Theatre Company and for the National Theatre).

'In the first one Cornwall leapt on to him and pinned him down - I think I wanted to focus on his enormous rush of energy and power. The second was the opposite, done with cool timing and scalpel accuracy. I don't think either was right. I now think what should happen is this: Gloucester's spectacles are mentioned very early in the play - Cornwall should stand on the glasses and stamp them into Gloucester's eyes. I wish I'd done that]

'I think I had more success in Titus Andronicus (RSC). It is the most violent play ever scripted, which is why it's avoided. Shakespeare leaves on stage a living, but silent, witness of the violence in the mutilated figure of Lavinia, who should remind you of the pain every time you see her. The hardest part was her entrance; we did it in the end through juxtaposing the boys' hilarity and her grotesque condition. You have to use counter-point and shock or surprise - because, in real life, the thing you could never imagine is what you experience in those terrifying moments. People fainted every night; it became a fashionable thing to do - go to Titus and faint]'

David Glass on stitching up his audience in 'Beg'

David Glass recently directed 'Beg' at BAC, London, in which a disturbed gynaecologist murdered men, then sewed live dogs inside them - creating a sort of ghoulish inversion of the pyjama case. In the final scene she demonstrated her expertise.

'We staged it as a heightened bit of visual imagery,' says Glass. 'With her talking as she did it about fairy stories of wolves having stones sewn up inside them. It was stylised, but we did have a big splash of something that looked like blood. What was very important was the way we set it up theatrically - we used music and lighting to build up a rhythm and then suddenly cut that off. It's hard to do violence on stage. People always laugh, partly because they are nervous. But it's the quality of the laughter that counts - whether it is mocking or horrified. We tried to lay the ground with little acts of violence all the way along. Also we made the violence at the end more effective by surprising the audience - just beforehand the detective in the piece had shot himself with a gun. Usually in a production, a gun going off is it - people think, 'That's the violence over with.' You shock them by having more. So it's not the single act of violence that's important, it's getting the world of the production right.'

(Photograph omitted)

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