Pretty much everything I know about Edgar Allen Poe, I know from watching Fringe shows. The author's trademark combination of darkness and mystery is an irresistible draw for theatre-makers – and I've lost count of the number of times I've witnessed a re-mix of Poe's canon. But although Poe's Last Night does fall into that familiar pattern, it also offers something surprisingly rare: an opportunity to hear some of his work, abridged but unmolested, delivered by a consummate performer.
The evening is hosted by Poe himself, played with confidence and conviction by David Crawford. His Poe is as complex and contradictory as the poems themselves; he's almost avuncular in the way he addresses the audience, but there's something disturbing about his recollections of his past. Tonight, the night of his death, he thinks he's being hunted – and as he speculates about who is pursuing him, he slips in and out of extracts from his better-known works.
This framing story is perhaps a little under-developed. It starts strongly, with a hint of both madness and danger in the way that Poe seems drawn to a knife, but that sense of immediacy fades away as the recited tales take over. There's a genuine mystery surrounding Poe's death, and the script does advance a reasonable-sounding theory about what happened – but I wasn't sure if we're meant to take it as a serious proposition, or as the product of the author's troubled mind.
What it does do – and does very well – is to provide an emotional hook to hang Poe's work on. The Cask of Amontillado has always seemed ludicrously gothic to me; but by setting it alongside a summary of Poe's troubled family life, its theme of revenge grows that little bit more credible and real. Equally, the sense of loss and longing riven through The Raven is a measure more acute, when you've just heard how the "Red Death" of tuberculosis had cast its shadow over Poe's life.
Crawford's delivery was faultless on the day I attended, and he guides us with assurance through the complex structures of Poe's work. A brief extract from The Pit and the Pendulum sets a tone of desperate terror, while The Cask of Amontillado is more measured, deftly contrasting the calculating narrator with his drunken, expansive victim. Without question though, the highlight is The Raven, where Crawford fully embraces both the unusual rhythm of the words and the descent into despair of its protagonist.
You probably need to have a passing familiarity with Poe's work to make the most of this show – a lot of the pleasure lies in the goose-bump moment when you recognise the extract Crawford is leading into. But if you do know the basics, you'll enjoy this opportunity to explore a few of his stories more thoroughly, and to gain a new understanding of what made this most mysterious of authors tick.