Blue Elephant Theatre
Mervyn Peake, author of the epic Gormenghast trilogy, is best known as a novelist and then as an artist and a poet although he was an established illustrator before he turned to writing and, love it or hate it, the Gormenghast series has overshadowed his other works. Put together with the critical failure of The Wit to Woo, the one play professionally produced in his lifetime, and the theatrical landscape of the period, it is probably not that difficult to assemble an explanation as to why The Cave has first made it to the stage nearly fifty years since it was penned.
The play spans thousands of years following the same family unit in three distinct eras. In the first, society is primitive and simply structured and mother, father and two sons live in the cave. It is an existence of routine terror, menaced nightly by hungry wolves and the fear of the Moon Woman to whom they make sacrificial offerings. A strange young woman, Mary, visits them one night, her disbelief in the power of the Moon subverting the status quo. "I am at war with fear," she says, her daring arousing anxiety and excitement across the generations.
In the second act the Mary who arrives at the cave is a heretic "guilty of thinking" and mistrusting the Roman "God of brimstone" in a society where the power of state and religion is in strong hands in a period akin to the Reformation.
In the final act the cave has been converted by the family into a bunker in a Cold War setting. Daily life has been largely released from the state's stranglehold but it is in the grip of nuclear self-destructive threat. With societal freedom, however, comes disorder: "When men can chose they run amok," observes Mary. Here she is more than an agent for change as she boldly claims, "I am chaos", the insurgent who will pit families against themselves, upturn whole communities at a time and risk the disintegration of society. In the face of such a force Mother's idea to conjure up the days of safety by praying looks pathetically inadequate.
The play comes across as an angry commentary on how flawed man invites its own ruination - "You are always looking ahead, but you have no vision," accuses Mary - but it is also a piece heavily flecked with issues of art, love and family and religious belief.
The Cave has a language that readers of Peake will recognise if not relish, and it becomes increasingly complex as the action progresses. It culminates in the baffling wordiness of the third act which, delivered at an irksome gallop, obscures its sense and belittles the brutal devaluing of human life played out on the stage. The added film clip failed to materialise due to a technical hitch and it might have given the closing a different inflection but on this occasion if felt as frustrating as it did thought-provoking.
Under the direction of Aaron Paterson the parallel scenes and dialogue are not laboured, though the action is halted often at the expense of the momentum; the fluidity is also affected by odd lines of dialogue spoken directly to the audience, a device used inconsistently and lacking apparent purpose.
The family relationships of Diane Axford and Nick Hoad as Mother and Father and Sebastian Aguirre and Guy Warren-Thomas as their two sons are established strongly and their performances enhance the claustrophobic atmosphere of the cleverly designed set of Talulah Mason. Emily Wallis plays the impalpable Mary and Matthew Wade gives sound support as Tom Carter.
Next year marks the centenary of Mervyn Peake's birth and it wouldn't need a genius to predict a resurgence of interest in his work. But why wait? For all its weaknesses The Cave remains a powerful piece of theatre.
"The Cave" runs Tuesday to Saturday until 6th November
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti