The West Australian, Feb-1999

From The Arts Today section of The West Australian newspaper on Thursday February 11th, 1999, edited by Ron Banks.

Solo mystery trip into Poe's psyche


I Might Be Edgar Allan Poe

by Dawson Nichols

The Blue Room

Review: Naomi Millet

American playwright Dawson Nichols' I Might Be Edgar Allan Poe takes an unusual slant on biography and the nature of truth.

Written as a monologue, the story of Poe initially emerges from the perspective of a mental patient Joseph (Canadian actor David Hayward), who, while working through his traumatic past, has so closely identified with Poe's dark themes that he has assumed the writer's persona.

Though not totally convinced himself, he suspects that at the very least he was Poe in a former life.

Unfortunately this uncertainty does not allow us a first-hand look into the famous mind, but it is the nearest we come to it. Joseph seems calm and rational, even likeable, and presents a strong case for his sanity.

Yet when he is examined by psychiatrists, we are not so sure, for neither in this convoluted questioning of truth is it certain that the doctors themselves are not mad. It is all a matter of perspective, as Joseph himself is the first to point out.

With humour and insight he recalls childhood eccentricities that may or may not have heralded later disturbance, and drops in and out of various characters to reveal how many points of view can exist simultaneously, and how difficult it is to grasp anything resembling the definitive truth.

At least one-third of the complex play consists of extracts from Poe's most famous short stories and poems, an approach that will give anyone unfamiliar with his writings a thrilling introduction.

In these segments Joseph's reserved, hesitant manner disappears, and he transforms into a focused, compelling performer.

Hayward's skill is such that it almost seems as if he is creating each line spontaneously, enhancing the power and strangeness of the texts through subtle gestures, vocal modulation and perfect timing.

Act II begins with a presentation of facts about the 19th century author. In the garb of an academic Hayward delivers a lecture from the perspective of a university whose obsession with his subject manifests itself in a barrage of anecdotes, references and topics to ponder. But, taken out of their original context, can we even regard the facts as trustworthy?

Monologues are risky, stressful genres at the best of times, let alone when they run for two hours, and Hayward demonstrates that he has what it takes to sustain attention.

However, some cuts could be made to the extended scenes where Joseph details his vicarious involvement in conflicts between family members and friends.

These divert us too far from the core of the drama, offer nothing more about either Joseph or Poe and do not seem to lead anywhere.

Then again, perhaps they aren't meant to…

Nichols' premise is not entirely original, but the figure he explores and the structure of his play are intriguing.

As Poe's stories are generally considered prototypes of the modern detective story, it seems fitting that such an aura of mystery pervades this drama.