Shirley Jackson adaptation devised by Anonymous Walrus, scripted by Adrian Harris
University Centre Weston’s Performing Arts Graduating Company
Kings Arms, Salford
Talk about a dysfunctional family. The Blackwood family is reduced both in number and status after the parents, aunt and a sibling die in a mysterious poisoning. The surviving family members are ostracised by neighbours who believe the prime suspect, older sister Constance, got away with murder.
Possibly as a result of the trauma, Constance becomes unable to leave the house in which she resides with younger sister Merricat, Uncle Julian and the family cat. The claustrophobic arrangement is disrupted by the arrival of estranged cousin Charles, whose friendly demeanour conceals resentment and greed.
The University Centre Weston’s Performing Arts Graduating Company have bitten off a lot to chew with their adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s gothic novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The opening of The Castle is radical—a stylised re-enactment of the family dinner at which the poisoning took place. This is followed by a confrontation between Merricat and the hostile neighbours, which climaxes in her breaking the fourth wall and sharing her intimate feelings—she regards the family home as her castle and will defend it accordingly—with the audience in the form of an eerie folk song.
The opening certainly grabs the attention but identifies the poisoner at a very early stage. Any efforts at red herrings—reference is made to Constance sneaking a boyfriend into the house on the night of the incident—are wasted. Shifting the focus of the story onto Merricat removes any ambiguity from Constance. The possibility she might be the guilty party does not arise, nor that she might not be agoraphobic but self-sacrificingly remains in the family home to keep an eye on her disturbed sister.
The source novel is regarded as an example of ‘American Gothic’, but the adaptation shifts the setting to England with UK accents and words: "bloke" and "arse". The folk-style music composed by Adrian Harris (who also scripted and directed the play) sets an uneasy tone but is distinctly English rather than American. One wonders if audiences unfamiliar with the novel will be able to pick out key points—the poison being in the sugar bowl, hence the barbed remarks about offering sugar to unwanted guests.
The company is large and relatively well-resourced with props. There is even—a first for the Fringe—a puppeteer manipulating Jonas, the family cat. This is ironic as the actual pub cat at The Kings Arms had to be chased off the stage before the start of the play.
There are a lot of scene changes necessitating moving of props and furniture. It becomes hard to maintain a silent, spooky atmosphere with so many distractions. The tone shifts, therefore, from gothic to shouty melodrama with the manipulations of the crafty cousin being revealed.
The source novel ends in the aftermath of a blaze that reduces the family home to a shell roughly resembling a castle. The adaptation, however, runs out of steam and concludes with the start of the fire and does not really address the fate of the characters.
The Castle rises to the challenge of adapting a classic novel with an imaginative approach but runs out of energy towards the conclusion.
Reviewer: David Cunningham