The Dark Carnival – Traverse Theatre

The Dark Carnival offers a unique perspective on the underworld and the afterlife, one where doom and gloom has been traded for husky jazz and smuggled whisky. God has seemingly left everyone adrift in a gap between the dreaded Hell and an ‘at capacity’ Heaven which turns desperate souls away, and the living let opportunities to connect with the dead pass them by.

The set is a crumbling stairway to purgatory with coffins piled on top of one another, coated in dripping cobwebs and roots from the soil that confines a cast of characters as translucent as the ghosts they long to be. The window into the overworld is a genius piece of theatre, creating an atmosphere of touching voyeurism. The Brechtian elements (such as characters rarely directly speaking to one another, turned to the audience instead) add a jilted sense of otherworldliness that complements the Gothic mood, and the individual performances are solid. The highlight of the production, however, is the accompanying music by A New International. Fantastically morose, yet catchy, it brings to mind the dulcet croons of Ryan Gosling’s band ‘Dead Man’s Bones’. Although, where the music is heavenly, the story is tired as hell.

The tragic gay love story at the centre of the narrative feels exploitatively depressing and plagued with tropes that seem as old and rotten as the bodies under the soil. This is not to say that acknowledging the very real issues with systematic homophobia in the 1950s (and today) cannot be featured in theatre or entertainment, but I’d argue that the treatment of the show’s explicitly queer characters has the same feel as an Oscar-bait, weepy tale of poor, heartbroken homosexuals against the menace of unfair, yet completely unchallenged, social prejudice.

Dying in prison after being caught with another man, John continues to suffer in the afterlife from the pull of an unending void, as well as the constant berating of a homophobic spirit of a priest and the exploitation and commodification of his pain at the hands of a ghost-hunting enthusiast looking for fame. The life of his left-behind lover similarly disintegrates as the story begins to tiptoe along a line that simultaneously romanticises suicide and condemns it. Snow falls dramatically on a crumpled body, ghosts slow-dance, and my soul gets its coat and heads home.

If God has gone, leaving behind a desolate Heaven which has barred its gates to prevent the ‘riff raff’ getting in, then so has the idea that death is the greatest equaliser, that it is something which unites us all regardless of class, gender, age, or sexuality. I’m not sure which aspect of this particular great beyond disappoints me more: the fact that social discrimination still thrives six feet under or that even when I’m dead I still won’t be able to afford a house.

Regardless of the disappointing narrative, the show’s production value is worth acclaim, as there are no faults with the aesthetic presentation of the production. The transitions into songs are always engaging and a delight to hear, and the lighting design is equally fantastic. Just don’t go into this expecting a happy ending, or even a satisfying one, as it appears to end just as the intensity really begins. Even in death, queer love seems forbidden and capitalism is God. Can I go to my resting place now? I’m tired.


PHOTOS: Traverse Theatre

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Zoe Robertson

Literature student at The University of Edinburgh - interested in new writing and voices.

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