A gruesome stage with distressed walls. The inside of a manor of past great glory. A “great house”, as it were. This great house has something of a rootedness, something of an invasiveness especially after the incident. The house with the vines that will soon overrun it, the detritus state it will soon be in also being the detritus state its two inhabitants will live with it.
There are many stories of “great houses” in literature, painted in the idiom of modernist horror: Julio Cortazar’s short story “House Taken Over” or the ironic dilapidated manner of a mansion of the Kennedy family in the film Gray Gardens, or again to stay with the idiom of the tragically morose, the phantasmagoric mansion in Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. All with their dilapidated surroundings and desperate lives - apocalyptic apostasies - where searching for “meaning” becomes a life and death contract till the inevitable tragic end. There are many instances of the creepy mansion with the existential reverberations of its inhabitants – the mansion as entity, entity with an enveloping presence, with an animate character that just takes over the very beings it is supposed to simply house.
Apocalyptic apostasies are on display in Love U Lovecraft, on at Théatre La Chapelle. The director, Stacey Christodoulou uses HP Lovecraft’s torrid universe – a wrecked New England farm Mansion as their jumping off point, embodying past memories of the past glory of life at the mansion/farm through poetic filled monologues and floating asymmetrical dialogue. It begins with a scene of the French speaking characters (who will narrate in the present the past incident) involved in each trying to bag the other’s head, like something out of Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games. They will be the narrators of the story of the Gardner family and how their lives slowly disintegrate and literally decompose after a meteorite hits their farm mansion/ manor. The play closely follows HP Lovecraft’s The Color Out Of Space and the story of the life of the Gardners after a meteorite hits their farm in Arkham, New England:
“…tangle of glens and slopes too much silence in the dim alley… little hillside farms;
sometimes with all the buildings standing, sometimes with only one or
two… tumbled bricks and stones of an old chimney and cellar on my right, and the yawning
black maw of an abandoned well…” HP Lovecraft
In Love U Lovecraft, the French narrators will tell the story, be accompanied by a ghostly figure who might be the Ammi character of Lovercraft’s original story who was the last man standing after the Gardners (husband, wife, and kids soon succumb to the strange otherworldly radioactivity of the meteorite), and then also be accompanied by the Gardners (husband and wife).
Stacey Christodoulou makes a faithful attempt to tell the story of “how to put this house to rest” after the meteorite strike; first the livestock getting sick, the plants withering, and then the protean inhabitants sooner or later becoming part of the “blasted (smoldering) heath” the meteorite has created. (the Gardners returning to “primal earth’). Reading Love craft’s original story – there is a clear line of disintegration and the recuperation of trying to find “meaning” in what is happening after this colossal disaster. In Lovecraft’s original story, there is also a strong line of narrative (story) of finding something beyond the gray matter and the blasted smoking heath the meteor has left in its wake.
Love U Lovecraft takes on a difficult story to represent on stage. Stacey Christodoulou’s actors present passionate poetic compressions which give you the dark dusk feel of Lovecraft’s story but as spectators we are at times taken away from the line of action by certain dialogues done in “period” (earlier century New England) language which for some might appear as exposition. At times there may be too much going on stage with continuous shifting scenes and shifting characters, which at times might lose us in something we have latched on to, like the beautiful French character’s descriptions. The madness that Miss Gardener succumbs to in the catastrophe of her house being decimated and their seemingly being stuck in the disaster is a key thing in the play and one wished that more of her madness was shown more through just action (body movement) rather than with the words that accompany the action. This was a very hard role to carry for anyone (the sort of role a Tilda Swinton or Nicole Kidman via “Dogville” or the recent ”Strangerland” might do). One could feel the great power of the actress in the role but but we seemed to not have the essence of madness’ energy which is an at a once constant battle between being all powerful (delusional or not) and being nothing (vulnerable)- to show more of how madness’ energy is not just a rush of energy but at once a consistent wilting, just as the house and its surroundings are going through after the meteorite strike, as in Lovecraft’s story. Miss Gardner’s madness to be developed in the denouement more through action, movement, and silence. The use of New England early century period dialogue by the actress playing Miss Gardner, at times felt a bit staid and over dramatic.
One might have wanted to see more muted movement rather than excess dialogue to portray much of Lovecraft’s universe- the madness, the tragedy, and the possible that might be left- all that is part of the “strange days”, of this incident, as he describes it. A prime example of this kind of masterful use of blocking and muted movement to portray complex story, took place in the recent mini masterpiece Untied Tales: The Vanished Power of the Usual Reign – acted/ danced by Clara Furey and Peter Jasko.
Again In Lovecraft’s original story, there is also a strong line of narrative (story) of finding something beyond the gray matter and the blasted smoking heath the meteor has left in its wake:
“On an anvil it appeared highly malleable, and in the dark its luminosity was very marked. Stubbornly refusing to grow cool, it soon had the college in a state of real excitement; and when upon heating before the spectroscope it displayed shining bands unlike any known colours of the normal spectrum there was much breathless talk of new elements, bizarre optical properties, and other things which puzzled men of science are wont to say when faced by the unknown.”
Stacey Christodoulou has rightly portrayed the grayness but to portray that object that glows and resides after meteorite crashed might bring something other than just the destruction and destitution, “realms of infinity beyond all Nature”/ “it glowed faintly in the light”. As its evinced of another region beyond the gray matter in Lovecraft -
“It was the coroner, seated near a window overlooking
the yard, who first noticed the glow about the well. Night had fully set
in, and all the abhorrent grounds seemed faintly luminous with more than
the fitful moonbeams; but this new glow was something definite and
distinct, and appeared to shoot up from the black pit like a softened
ray from a searchlight, giving dull reflections in the little ground
pools where the water had been emptied. It had a very queer colour”
To show the such, more silent theatralization might be key to understand more of the secrets (good and bad) of what Lovecraft calls the “strange days”, not just that which is morose in the meteor crash and dilapidation of the “great house” but also the scintillations that are intimated- the phosphorescent glow of the “thing” that remains after the meteorite crash). Stacey Christodoulou does pull something out of Lovecraft which is very interesting – a kind of earthly pact and credo which dying really is – from the primal earth and back to it. After, all the queer death cries that the Gardeners lived through in Lovecraft’s strange story, there was always the assurance, one would hope that they might after it all, return to the primal earth, as Stacey Christodoulou’s Love U Lovecraft smartly points out.
Portraying heterodoxy is never an easy affair. But, to be sure, portraying heterodoxy can never be an over spoken affair! Delivering Lovecraft on stage must always have some aspect of waiting, waiting for that deep chthonic realm Lovecraft is always pointing to. Culling that chthonic realm and calling on it too much, might hide the very heterodox that Lovecraft has at the center of all of his works.