Gormenghast

Mervyn Peake, adapted by John Constable
The David Glass Ensemble
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring
(2007)

Production photo

The translation of Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake’s epic fantasy trilogy (70 years old and still like nothing else), into any kind of realistic dramatic presentation would be a wasted effort. Indeed, it was something of a wasted effort when the BBC televised it in 2000, despite a stellar cast and some memorable performances. Gormenghast may not boast supernatural monsters or spectres from the grave, but it is Gothic through and through, soaked and marinated in a Gothicity that permeates every speck of dust and patch of mould. Quite out of keeping with this, the BBC adaptation was so full of shiny computer-generated effects that it could have functioned as a holiday advert – “Come to sunny Gormenghast”.

You’re never going to get anywhere near it by that route, because Gormenghast itself, the ancestral home of the ludicrously ritual-ridden Groan family, expands and contracts on the page to become endless corridors, secret nooks and crannies, crumbling turrets and an illogical proliferation of windows and doors. David Glass, director and developer of this revised stage version, approaches Peake’s creation with love and insight: “Never literalise the castle. Gormenghast must remain an enigmatic labyrinthine state of mind, not a place the audience could ever see.”

Glass and adaptor John Constable first put together their dramatisation in 1995, with minimal props, a small cast and precious little set beyond the space of the stage. In that form it played in Newcastle’s Gulbenkian Studio Theatre, where proximity to the action was inevitable and, given the nature of some of the characters, flesh-creepingly uncomfortable. I had doubts as to whether this revival would work in the much larger and more formal venue of Northern Stage’s Stage One, but one thing you can say about darkness – it expands to fill any space to hand. Bigger theatre, more darkness clinging to those creakingly strange characters, more shadows within which you can just make out the elusive, shifting confines of the castle itself.

The David Glass Ensemble has developed a distinctive style of physical theatre which can’t quite be called mime, since dialogue is permitted within a soundscape vital to the production. It’s a theatrical mode that can require performers to shift effortlessly from playing a leading role to becoming an abstract part of the scenery – and you don’t even remark that they’re doing it. This is total ensemble performing, where acting and effects and movement are fused seamlessly. I love their work, loved Gormenghast but do have to make one big philistine comment – it helps if you know the story first! Yes, I know that’s heresy, but setting a mood isn’t telling a story, and even if you strip it down to a lean, mean skeleton, Gormenghast is a complex tale created by Peake’s complex words. That’s why this production is more of a translation than an adaptation, cutting dialogue and explanation to a minimum but just possibly leaving some viewers in the wrong sort of dark. Not everyone in the audience stayed till the end, which was a shame since the shape of the story did become gradually clearer.

And the narrative shape isn’t anywhere near as complex as the unfathomable castle which contains it. Young Titus Groan is heir both to the material world of Gormenghast and to the stultifyingly ritualised life of his aristocratic family and their entourage. From birth his role has been defined as one of meaningless power. Steerpike, played with sinewy potency by Adam Sunderland, is a kitchen boy who knows instinctively just what it will take Titus so long to learn – that you can win power by manipulation, by steering the game of ritual towards change rather than stability. His mixture of charm, deceit and menace allows Steerpike to worm his way through the household until he has provoked battle, emotional conflict and finally a way out for Titus. Glass rightly sees this as a coming-of-age story pivoted on the two opposed boys and Titus’ sister Fuchsia – but along the way you do get richly engaged by the massive guts and chopper technique of Swelter the cook, the twittering twin aunts Cora and Clarice seduced by power beyond their comprehension, and the army of cats that accompany the monstrous Countess Gertrude. It’s difficult (and perhaps irrelevant) to single out performances from such a tight-knit ensemble, but Philip Pellow was magnificent as Flay, the loyal retainer whose very knees creaked in consort with the castle and whose walk could conjure up heights and depths beyond mere representation. And for an unexpected beauty conveyed by the sheer physical intensity of her movement, Elizabeth Collier as the Thing, a wild child who communicates a doomed sense of freedom to Titus, was utterly mesmerising.

It’s interesting to speculate about Peake’s unfulfilled plans to write at least two other books charting the further life of Titus Groan, but they couldn’t have retained the character of the trilogy as we have it. As the David Glass production demonstrates, the central role belongs not to Titus or Steerpike but to the castle of Gormenghast itself, created by imagination and illuminated by just enough light to deepen the shadows.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson