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'Phantasmagoria' at the Southwark Playhouse: Review

On the 6th of November, I was privileged enough to attend the opening night for Phantasmagoria, a psychological horror written by award-winning international playwright Deepika Arwind. Following an interview with the playwright herself, I had high hopes for this evening. These were most certainly fulfilled. Having read about the play in advance of the evening, it was interesting to see these ideas translated onto stage.

Phantasmagoria takes place in a vacuum and may be considered microcosmic in its style. The singular room in which the events unfold is situated amidst a vast expanse of forest, both symbolic in virtue of its singularity and in its sheer distance from civilisation, removed from the wider political context. Impressively, Arwind depicts a room that is simultaneously set apart from and fundamentally embedded within the political landscape; the conflict occurring within this space establishes a keen sense that our differences are inescapable.

Cast of 'Phantasmagoria'. Photo by Nicola Young.

The pervading mood in the room is characterised by hostilities, seemingly bred out of rigid binaries and the characters’ incapacity or sheer unwillingness to compromise – or, at the least, to open their minds to an alternative viewpoint or the possibility of change. Conveniently, the other rooms in the house are inaccessible to the protagonist Mehrosh, the guest in the home, which effectively serves to entrap her in this space, saturated with tensions.

The contained space magnifies pre-existing conflicts of interest and, in turn, accentuates the gap between the adversaries - activist Mehrosh and politician from the ruling party, Bina - to emphasise their differences. Perhaps the stage may be considered a battlefield, an arena for combat. The tension in the room was palpable, captivating the audience. Our eyes were glued to the scene unfolding. Notably, the plot comprised of one prolonged scene, perhaps emphasising the unremitting nature of hostilities or alluding to a sense of perpetual tension should we fail to bridge those gaps setting us apart. These notions are eery and most certainly fitting.

There is a certain compelling obscurity at the heart of the play. This was achieved in large through the establishment of multi-dimensional characters, liable to unpredictable and inexplicable change. The changing dynamics effectively serve to establish an uncanny atmosphere. A sense of the uncanny is compounded further by the use of dimmed lighting, and the condition of being devoid of light altogether, as well as eery sound effects. The latter serve as a subtle reminder of the mysterious environs encompassing the house.

Furthermore, the use of pathetic fallacy - namely, the outbreak of a storm - was certainly significant, mirroring the emotional turmoil in the room and representative of the wider political climate and structural paradigms. The arrival of a storm was acknowledged in the play as an unforeseen and unprecedented event, perhaps symbolic of the unpredictable nature of humankind, particularly when positioned in an argumentative context.

Characterising the play in large were a number of motifs, two of which stood out to me. The theme of populism was made apparent through the character dynamics and the disparities emphasised between them, who each seemingly served as symbols of given sociocultural backgrounds. Another prevalent theme was the danger of social media, casting light upon contemporary technological advancements, emphasising its implications for conflicts, and overall suggesting that social media serves to escalate tensions. Being that I am a part of Generation Z myself, this idea resonated with what I see every day online. Increasing dependence on the media is problematic, and we are increasingly the subjects of misinformation and the victims of resultant hysteria.

The characters were successful archetypes and the incorporation of comic moments served to humanise them. Arwind masterfully established a paradox of universality and individuality, which was a perfect balance between characters as both emblematic and unique beings. Characters simultaneously manifested distinctly personal eccentricities and the quality of relatability. As audience members, we were invited to identify the messages conveyed by the characters and to empathise with their experiences. Not to mention, it was certainly refreshing to see a play of predominantly female representation, outweighing the male actor three-to-one.

Overall, I found Phantasmagoria to be insightful and telling, serving to reinforce a universal message about the dangers of conflicting interests and opinions, proposing that we should endeavour to listen to one another. The characters were, after all, effectively obliged to listen to one another, when pitted against one another in the limited constraints of a singular room.


Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.


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