Blackshaw have taken on a colossal project with their stage adaptation of the first book in Mervyn Peake’s much-loved trilogy Gormenghast. The result is mixed: ambition and opulence are there in spades, but it isn’t always enough, and is extremely rough around the edges. At St Paul’s (The Actor’s Church), Covent Garden.
Titus Groan, the first book in the Gormenghast series, follows the machinations of Steerpike, a kitchen boy with dreams of grandeur, and who uses the catalyst of Titus’ birth to bring change to the ritual-bound earldom. Titus, the latest Groan and thus next in line to be earl, becomes the hero of later books, but here it is Steerpike worming his way from kitchen boy to first attendant of rituals who plays the conniving anti-hero.
The book is a childhood favourite of many, and it’s clear why – Peake creates grotesque and enjoyable characters, and the setting of the huge castle (also called Gormenghast) with multiple hidden rooms and nooks and crannies is an enjoyable fantasy trope. In Blackshaw’s adaptation, the Actor’s Church stands in for the castle, and the result is spectacular. Designer Zahra Mansouri has turned the church into a sumptuous representation of the excesses of the wealthy, with gilt and frippery abounding and yet fitting perfectly into the venue – it’s sometimes hard to tell what is set and what is just part of the space! It instantly banishes any thoughts of the seminal BBC adaptation in favour of this different direction – an impressive achievement.
However, the piece doesn’t match up to these efforts. The performers have plumbed the grotesque depths of the book to create their characters, but any humanity seems to have been expunged in favour of comedy – leaving us with a piece bereft of heart. There are exceptions – Francis Woolf’s Steerpike is deliciously malicious, and John Harwood plays Lord Sepulchrave’s descent into madness with the necessary tact, but it’s not really enough. This is also not a company of actors used to large spaces – some of their ‘character’ voices leave them incomprehensible in so echoing a church, which isn’t helped by a far-too-loud musical score that often drowns out dialogue.
This is just one of a number of production niggles that plague Titus Groan. Actors are frequently half-lit or unlit; scenes are staged at the back of the church, where voices are drowned out further; a number of set pieces seem under-rehearsed and clumsy, resulting in a number of beard/prop-related disasters; projection work doesn’t tie in with sound… I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I could go on. It seems to be a situation where ambition has far outstripped ability: Blackshaw are a young company, and this just seems to have been beyond them.
There’s also a question of why so young a company should be staging so monumental an adaptation – the book is too big to be condensed down to a sensible stage show without losing sub-plots and details, and even then it’s still the first part of a trilogy; it doesn’t really end so much as stop. This is also not a particularly good adaptation – key scenes are removed and warped, and after three hours it’s still not easily followable for people who haven’t read the books. There are too many purely comedic scenes and endlessly long monologues that read beautifully but make little to no sense in the context of a play. It’s clearly a case of too much ambition: this is the kind of book that a West-End production company might have managed to adapt and stage well, but Blackshaw are too small to truly capture what makes these books such cult classics.
It’s still a very enjoyable production, and the roughness around the edges doesn’t detract completely, but Blackshaw need to do a lot more to make their ambition pay off – something I hope they will consider if they take the project further.