Andrew Pulver talks to DAVID GLASS about transferring the
s- ‘_ i
fantastic world of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast to the stage.
uschia. Slagg. Sourdust. Steerpike. Prunesquallor. Flay. Sepulchrave. the Thing: these are some of the characters that people Mervyn Peake‘s Gormenghast trilogy. a genuine oddity of post-war literature. With its weird. invented world of ruined castles and bloody conflicts. its idiosyncratic. rambling narrative is a spectacular but somehow isolated achievement.
Transforming it into theatre is a task that does not daunt David Glass. one ofthe UK's principal exponents of performance theatre. The creator of the acclaimed Popeye in Exile, Bozo‘s Dead and Moby Dick is confident he has tackled the problem effectively. ‘It was a matter oftaking the central relationships and using them as a skeleton around which other interesting features could be placed so as to bring out the visually interesting aspects of the novel.‘ he explains. ‘Writers tend to over-write adaptations — put in lots ofdialogue — but in physical theatre. words and movement have to be enmeshed. We need to give ourselves that scope.‘
Peake’s masterwork was published as three novels between 1950 and 1964 — Titus Groan, Gormenghast. Titus Alone — and relates in intense. frenzied detail. the mythical history ofthe Groan family: the debilitated Lord Sepulchrave and his children. Titus and Fuschia. who inhabit the fictitious Castle of Gormenghast in a fantastical world of musty ritual. Reminiscent of Dickens in its grotesque ferocity. Joyce in its massive verbosity and Tolkein in its meticulously heroical settings. Peake’s writing is. however. all its own. with a school-boyish sense of comedy not unlike J arry’s Ubu Roi, or a mock-Gothic Treasure Island. ‘Often people read it in their adolescence when the raw nerve of rebellion
is very hot.‘ observes Glass. fWhen you're eighteen every family feels like a Groan family— things are strange. peculiar— no-one behaves the way they should. The book is focused through a psychological reality — it’s dealing with a family. but taken to extremes. There‘s a mother who doesn‘t speak to her child until he’s six: there‘s a child desperately wanting to go to another world. and she lives in an attic 1000 feet above the ground. It‘s a closed imaginative world.‘
‘Otten people read it in theiradolescence
i When you’re eighteen every lamilyleels like a Groanlamily.’
, when the raw nerve of rebellion is very hot.
Told through a series of monumental conﬂicts. the trilogy‘s main battle is between young Titus. and_the tormented servant Steerpike. whose ‘climb across the roof“ of Gormenghast is a masterpiece of literary apocalypse. ‘We went for this conflict as the performance centre.‘ explains Glass. ‘because it was a reﬂection ofTitus being at the top and Steerpike being at the bottom. Both rebel against Gormenghast. but for different reasons: Steerpike is a Stalin-like figure wanting to turn the whole thing upside ; down. making it much worse than it was before — and Titus just rejects it. By making this the basic thread. we were able to mould the other characters around them. For example. the Thing —— the rather strange being in the second book that Titus falls in love with — becomes central to the plot. On the other hand. a character like Nanny Slagg. since Dr Prunesquallor is practically her double. we had to ditch because she didn’t give us the kind of continuity we required.‘
Peake’s own vocation as an artist and illustrator is undoubtedly responsible for the over-powering visual aspects of Gormenghast that Glass is quick to capitalise on. ‘Peake talks a lot about lighting in his books — as he‘s a painter he aranges things in tableaux. We‘ve lit the show in a very special way; we also had a look at his drawings and drew a lot on that material. We tried as much as possible to stay with the spirit ofthe piece. rather than trying to create a theatrical Xerox copy.’ Glass‘s particular style of performance is responsible for this approach. Mime. dance and many strenuous physical skills. from Japanese Kabuki to Italian commedia (lell‘arte are stirred into his brew. ‘The most important decision we made was never to show directly Gormenghast Castle — we didn‘t want to establish what it might or might not look like. We wanted it evoked through music. sound and mime. You get the sense of the epicness of the place. not through description. but the implication of the actor‘s art. which is what I‘m interested in anyway.‘
Past work by the David Glass Ensemble
I bears out this claim. Popeye in Exile and ‘ Bozo '5 Dead. for example. focused on the
off-centre world of the cartoon/clown. ‘I was interested in certain aspects of the clown which had been lost.‘ says Glass. “People had got very cynical about the clown. and rightly so. Gormenghast is a much darker show because of the nature ofthe story. In clowning the joke comes first. but in melodrama any emotion always grows out of the characters. Only certain stories can be told in physical theatre.‘ In a sense. Gormenghast is made for this kind of performance. Peake‘s obsessively visual. sensory imagination seems permanently on the verge ofcrippling his writing; David Glass will restore the painter’s unique vision to its rightful medium.
Gormenghast. Tramway, Glasgow, 24—25 Feb.
The List 14 — 27 February 199211