Empire: Terror on the High Seas

7 Sep

I love genre studies. I love asserting which features define a particular genre. I love explaining the popularity of a particular genre. Basically, I love making ridiculous generalizations.

Empire: Terror on the High Seas by Toby Schmitz is part whodunit part slasher.

It’s also flamboyant and fun. And intelligent; wonderfully rich in playful historical allusion.


Set on a liner crossing the Atlantic in 1925, director Leland Kean’s cast have a ball with the larger-than-life characters. (Ella Scott Lynch and Nathan Lovejoy have particular fun with an RP accent and the beautiful comic juxtapositions it allows.)

Someone is killing the passengers and crew, and we don’t know who. So we try to guess. A whodunnit.

Whodunnits are popular because they suggest, despite the initial chaos, that order will be restored. The investigator, using reason, will bring the criminal to justice.

The slasher genre has no such faith in reason. It luxuriates in the physical; the sexual and, of course, the violent.

The whodunnit builds. The slasher genre tears down.

All philosophy could be described as the struggle between these two approaches; between the systematizers and the wreckers. They probably need each other.

And, in this play, the two have an interesting impact. Schmitz draws attention to certain values and asks us to question them.

Whodunnits, for example, rely on the power of reason, but what’s deemed reasonable is determined by the values shared by the investigator and the audience. ( Yes, Sherlock Holmes reasoning is so logical, but the whole point of that character was that he was an extreme. And, anyway, the audience can’t do the scientific stuff. ) As the audience guesses at the killer, they’re ‘proven’ to be reasonable people when their prejudices match those of the investigator. Except when  the investigator struggles to identify the killer. Then these prejudices are challenged.

The slasher strand is rather more obvious. Kill ‘em all, it says. As far as an indictment of values goes, it doesn’t get much more damning.

And what are the values questioned? In Empire: Terror on the High Seas they are a smug superiority, a privileged complacency, a casual racism.

And though the play is set in 1925, I fear the sun is still rising on that empire.

Veronica Kaye


Empire: Terror on the High Seas

Bondi Pavilion 28 Sept



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