Adapted from the novel by Rene Denfeld, The Enchanted dares to tackle a difficult truth: the fact that violent psychopaths do exist within society, and the question of how we should respond to them. Set principally in a maximum security prison, and narrated by a man whose crime we never know, the story follows another inmate – York – who, after a number of failed appeals, is nearing the end of ‘the conveyor belt to death’. York is ready to meet his fate, but an idealistic young investigator is determined to save him.
A parallel tale, of a ‘fallen priest’, is a little less developed – and perhaps this abridged adaptation would have benefited from focussing on just one of the storylines. But the investigator’s studies draw out a harrowing and often disturbing tale, asking whether psychopaths are born that way or shaped by society. The description of the death of a rabbit is particularly grim, and there’s an evocative description of what it’s like to live without remorse: to search for an emotion people tell you about, but which you yourself are unable to feel.
Pharmacy Theatre’s performance is stylised and physical, matching the part-fantastical tone of the novel. In a clever piece of staging, wheeled stacks of cages evoke the bars of the prison; the play opens with a particularly striking image, of men and women in orange prison T-shirts crammed uncomfortably into narrow gaps between them. The choreography is impeccable throughout, and the direction is astute, opening up the performance to inspection from all angles and reinforcing the theme of investigation and study which underpins the storyline.
But just as spoken pieces can be enhanced by a judicious pause, so physical performances often benefit from a moment’s stillness. In the case of The Enchanted, some of the movement seemed to be for movement’s sake – especially during the one-on-one interview sequences, where the characters’ constant writhing in their seats was as distracting as it was perplexing. Conveying a restless mind is one thing; accompanying each line with a full body contortion is quite another.
The spoken delivery, in contrast, is stripped of tone or emphasis, and at times I confess I felt my attention beginning to drift. That’s particularly true of the principal narrator. I think I understand the intent here – it’s suggesting a form of absence, or disengagement from the realities around him – but it comes at the price of making some passages just a little bit dull.
By all accounts, The Enchanted is a difficult novel to summarise or capture, yet Pharmacy Theatre does a good job of netting it down to a coherent hour. The deliberate distancing went too far for me – but the quality of the performances can’t be denied. Overall it’s a stylish production, and a script that does justice to its knotty and challenging themes.