Underworlds have always held a morbid fascination, from Dante to the Duffer brothers. They invert and subvert, and reveal our true selves – or transform them into something monstrous. In the program notes for this hybrid theatre and dance work, with a monologue by Emme Hoy and choreography by Stephanie Lake, director Matthew Lutton cites HP Lovecraft as a key inspiration. A great conjuror of subterranean hellscapes, his work is certainly a good place to start.
Lovecraft’s underworlds tend to have an oceanic (or at least aqueous) source, and his creatures are usually waterlogged and briny. The underworld in Monsters is the result of a giant sinkhole, and the creature at the centre is amorphous, barely glimpsed. Hoy’s script leans heavily into the allegorical nature of Lovecraftian horror, but gives it a distinctly urban, almost mechanistic flavour. This is a monster of the city, the result of an unspoken but communal metropolitan failure.
Alison Whyte is our narrator, beginning the piece from the side of the stage with a cuppa in her hand. It’s a deliberately casual, even lackadaisical opening and it takes a long while to generate the predominant tone: a kind of hushed, compulsive determination. Soon she shifts from third to first-person narration, becoming a woman searching, with the aid of a professional cave diver, for her sister in the depths of the sinkhole.
Whyte is terrific. She has a great line in tortured vulnerability, and can ratchet up tension almost to breaking point without tilting into melodrama. She is primarily a vocal actor; less assured stalking the stage, most arresting when standing still. Her descent into the monster’s lair has a sustained urgency about it, bringing to mind the anxiety-ridden journeys of Aliens by way of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.
Accompanying Whyte on stage are three dancers (Samantha Hines, Josie Weise and Kimball Wong) who don’t so much interpret the tale alongside the actor as provide an alternate mode of expression. As with all Stephanie Lake’s work, the choreography is deeply idiosyncratic and inventive; angular, spasmodic, disturbingly primordial. At its best, it carries a strange ritualistic power, speaking of malformation and transmogrification, of things hidden and bestial.
Despite this, Monsters only sporadically works. Lutton’s direction is dogged, certainly, but he allows for very little modulation in tone or register, and the miserable environment the narrator traverses quickly becomes monotonous. There are moments of genuine horror, such as when the stage pitches into darkness and then suddenly illuminates a tableaux of extreme stress and disorder, like something from early David Lynch or even Goya’s Black Paintings. But there are also long stretches that seem merely repetitive.
Hoy’s text is strongest when it allows itself to wander into surrealist abstraction, into the body horror of Cronenberg, but it falls apart when the sisters are reunited in the bowels of the city and the allegorical becomes literal. Literal mindedness also affects Lake’s choreography at this point – an accusation that could rarely be made against her work before now – and the whole thing begins to look a little silly.
The set and lighting design (Paul Jackson), with its profound shadows and beams of cold, unnatural light, is powerful and highly atmospheric, as is Rosalind Hall’s complex score. The overall aesthetic is deeply expressionist, but it leans on certain theatrical motifs that have become synonymous with Malthouse productions under Lutton, and border on the cliched – those flashes of darkness, which he used in Picnic at Hanging Rock, and those painfully loud sound effects, which he uses in virtually every production he directs.
Monsters is distracting, and might intrigue audiences unfamiliar with this company’s work. It attempts something genuinely difficult in theatre – a sustained and unsettling horror – and it even intermittently pulls it off. But the hybrid form doesn’t coalesce, and the more the two modes work in tandem the more obvious it becomes. Underworlds should disturb us, and change us, more than this.
Monsters is on at the Malthouse theatre until 11 December