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Hotel Methuselah
Published on Tuesday, 23 August 2011

4 stars

Summerhall (venue website)
19-21 Aug, 12:45pm-2:00pm, 2:45pm-4:00pm; 22-26 Aug, 10:45am-12:00pm, 12:45pm-2:00pm, 2:45pm-4:00pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Recommended for age 16+ only.

There are a lot of headless bodies at the Hotel Methusalah.  That’s not because it’s a vision of Hell – though it is that, in a way – but rather, because of a striking, defining device.  Subverting our familiarity with “letterboxed” movies, we watch all the action through a torso-level slit, hiding the faces of the protagonists behind the jet-black surround.  Projected in the background, the film itself plays – synchronized with the live action, and filling in the details we’re missing from our limited point of view.

It’s a fascinating concept, well worth the price of a ticket just to see.  I struggled, though, to really mesh together the background projection and the foreground scenes; psychologically, the play and the film always felt quite separate to me.  It’s hard to know why, since the actors are well-practised; one lights a cigarette, and at just the right moment, you see the smoke wisp up around her face on screen.  It may well be just a feature of the way my mind works, and it would be fascinating to know what the whole thing’s like if your brain connects the two components more readily than mine.

But the real hallmark of any play-with-a-gimmick is how well it would stand up with that gimmick removed; and Hotel Methusalah passes that test with ease.  Set in a besieged hotel in a city at war, it compellingly evokes both the desperation of its residents’ situation and the curious way they just get on with their lives.  All the expected characters are there – the mysterious woman, the calmly threatening man, the night-porter weary of war – but despite its familiarity, there’s nothing hackneyed to the detail of the script.

I have to say I wasn’t quite prepared for the overt sexuality of certain video scenes (do people really sit naked in their armchairs in an average hotel?), but there’s a touching and challenging message which runs throughout the play, about the comforts we can find with strangers at times of need.  The whole thing’s satisfyingly eerie, with sinister repetitions and hints of a mystery in the characters’ pasts.  And it successfully pulls off a classically filmic trick, revealing its secrets in 30 seconds at the end – yet still making perfect sense, and leaving you feeling that you really knew all along.

A little of the dialogue felt over-extended to me, creating a slightly uneven pace, and I thought they were a bit too sparing with their most striking effects.  The surround sound, in particular, could do more to draw us into the city under siege.  Overall though, Hotel Methusalah is an interesting experiment – albeit one that’s now a few years old.  It justifies its tag as a “contemporary ghost story”; this is a hotel that it’s worth booking into.

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