Gormenghast (Dis)played; or, How to Mount a Frame of Mind

The beleaguered sun appeared to have triumphed at last in a narrow victory over the long-reigning clouds, and I, a much deprived heliolater, ventured out with laptop and deckchair to luxuriate in the vernal cool of a brightly colored afternoon, absorbed in thoughts of . . . death, dread, and desolation. It was not the long shadows cast upon the weeds-corrupted lawn, nor the shrieking of the crows nesting in our chimney that evoked such gloomy visions; nor was it the realization that the skies were darkening once more as another curtain of mist was lowering itself upon the formerly glorious outdoors.

No, my mood was not brought on by any one thing I happened to be perceiving at that moment; it was something instead that I took away with me last night as the crowds poured out of the theater on the hill, sending them into the inky, rain-swept night with images of Gormenghast.

Appearing before me, on the stage of my mind, are scenes of last night’s production of Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy, a dark evocation of a world more forbidding, more rotten and miasmic than Hamlet’s Elsinore—a world of stifling traditions, soul-crushing dread, and futile ambitions. To say that John Constable’s adaptation of this world was a recreation in sound and images would be an injustice to this thoroughly engrossing spectacle—a theatrical event that struck me at times as a staging of Jacobean revenge tragedies by Cirque du Soleil. Matthew Bourne, who whipped Edward Scissorhands into such a frothy confection of over-hyped ballet-hoo should take note; as should anyone endeavouring to bring a fantasy like Tolkien’s alive in the “wooden O” of the theater. Under the direction of David Glass, Gormenghast is conceived as an imaginatively choreographed piece of melodramatic shadowcasting, a labyrinthine dreamscape whose grotesque denizens scurry about like frustrated rodents.

As Quentin Crisp suggests in an essay on Peake as author and artist, visualizations often fail in the attempt to capture the imagined. When illustrating or showing, when portraying and rendering concrete the world an imaginative storyteller creates in words, “a certain ludicrous quality is always liable to creep in; the eye begins to vomit sooner than the ear—far sooner than the mind.”

So, the prospect of ghastly gormandizing, on seeing novelistic food for fancy being processed into rancid eye candy was not something I looked forward to without serious misgivings. I had not expected anything quite as bold as this inspired translation, which relied neither on the spoken word nor elaborate props to assist the audience in seeing the castle of Gormenghast rise not so much before their eyes as before their mind’s eye.

There was silent screen horror in the movement of Phillip Pellew (above, as Flay) and in the long corridors suggested by panels and shafts of light; in fact, the production seemed to owe more to silent movies than to western stage melodrama; this Grand Guignol was at times Kafkaesque, at others reminiscent of Brecht’s epic theater, as meek and inconsequential Steerpike (played by Adam Sunderland) attempts to lift himself from squalor to political prominence—a ruthless revolutionary in a stagnant, corroding society insisting on “no change.”

David Glass’s Gormenghast is too bleak to be called brilliant; but it certainly is a memorable achievement in translation, which is the realization that being faithful is not being literal, the radical art of doing away with “no change.”

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