I meet Swedish theatre maker Jakop Ahlbom – a magician before he became a director – on the decidedly creepy set of Horror, the award-winning physical theatre production that has had audiences cowering in their seats since it premiered in 2014.
This is not my happy place. To tell you the truth, I’m wondering if this might be the first interview I’ve done with a director that will actually put me off seeing a show.
You see, I hate horror films. It’s not the blood, really. It’s the idea of the supernatural … of possession … I’m starting to spook myself just thinking about it.
OK, Jakop, why did you want to make a horror show for the stage?
Because it’s rare. It’s not only rare in Australia, it is rare all over the world. I was excited to see if it could be done. Everything we do on stage is performed live. We are not dependent on video or projections. Instead, we use illusion to make the visual effects.
Why are you drawn to horror?
I always enjoyed the thrill of watching a horror movie when I was young. I enjoy horror because it tries to visualise emotion. It makes you look at things from another perspective. It might be about the supernatural, or monsters or ghosts, but it is about you fighting your own demons.
I could just do an exciting horror show with splashes of blood and effects everywhere and people think, ‘oh wow, cool, great’. But no, that would be cheating for me. It’s much better to have a bit of that plus something meaningful. I want to connect it to what is fear about, why are we scared and what are we scared of.
I have to tell you … I really don’t like horror films, especially those with creepy children.
Not everyone loves horror. But a lot of people do. It is a thrill. I call it the bungy-jumping effect. You get an adrenaline kick, and I think with horror you do it in a safe way. You sit in a dark room and you get scared. It sounds like a stupid thing to do but you get that adrenaline feeling.
Still not convinced … tell me about the story on stage and what inspired it.
I wanted to start with a traumatic event and a family story. I took inspiration from Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander, where a widow marries a priest who thinks that beating her children will make them better people. He says he does it out of love. But it is terrifying and he is horrible.
My story is about two sisters who are not allowed to become women and discover their sexuality. Their father oppresses them. It has lots of levels. It’s not just a horrible story. I challenge the audience to get involved with the characters.
Without giving too much away, what will we see?
The set is a house and a garden but you don’t see it all at once. I can control where the audience looks with light. Music builds up the tension at lot and I use black outs. Or sometimes, you think you’re going to see something but I close it down and then start all over again.
The other technique is using stage illusion. We try to make everything real. We pull a rope or open a door. It is mechanical, not digital. We control everything.
There are eight performers and two technicians and the actors are also helping back stage. It is very hard work for them. No one gets to sit around relaxing in the back when they are not on.
So things can go wrong?
Yes, that’s why we rehearse very carefully. Sometimes a simple thing doesn’t work out but the audience will never know. We have a plan B for everything.
Is Horror funny-scary or just scary-scary. I need to know.
When we talk about horror movies we think everything is scary but there is also a lot of humour. Some horror films use slapstick elements. So I wanted to make it comical and also scary. It’s more like Evil Dead 2. I actually wanted to recreate that for the stage once but then I found out it’s already been done – as a musical. So I made my own show.
I’ve read there’s a lot in the show for horror film buffs.
I used inspiration from different horror movies to create my own story. It is fun to spot the references but even if you don’t recognise the movie it doesn’t matter, you can still enjoy the story.
You might see a reference to Evil Dead 2, The Exorcist and The Ring. I love the Japanese ghost stories. You will see a reference to The Shining for a brief moment. I love Kubrick, he is so precise with all his details. I love David Cronenburg’s movies and Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street. I was fascinated with the first movie but the franchise was no good.
I don’t like slasher movies when it just gets disgusting. That is not my style at all. I want something we can relate to. Fear that we can understand.
Has anyone ever fainted?
No one has fainted in this show that I know of. There is blood. There are some gory moments. But it is theatre. It will never look like the real thing. You will wonder how did you do that? That is not possible.
And you can always close your eyes. People who think they will be afraid shouldn’t let that stop them coming because we are playing with the ingredients of theatre in a new way and it is exciting. It’s not lengthy. It’s not intellectual. It’s physical and visual. There is no text. It’s just images and they are moving. We’re storytelling in a dreamlike way.
But I’m easily spooked.
If you are very easily scared, you might be a bit scared. But if you are a die-hard horror fan, I can’t scare you. There have been young girls screaming. But some people say it’s not scary at all. It is not a horror movie. It is theatre. I try to build up the tension with music and lighting.
I use jump scares where there is a sudden loud noise or you see something. People tend to laugh a lot. When there is a reaction, people tend to laugh rather than be scared. There is a release. So there is a lot of laughing. People come out excited.
Horror plays at the Sydney Opera House until September 2, IPAC, Wollongong, September 5-8, and the Canberra Theatre Centre, September 11-15.