We don't hear much about the stagecraft of MG Lewis, these days. We don't, come to think of it, hear much about MG Lewis, though, as the author of The Monk, one of the stand-out tomes in the late 18th century's rapidly sprouted Gothic library, his name has managed to withstand the blows of time's scythe. The Nature of the Terrible fate that Befell his Vasty dramatic output can only be Wondered at, however. The Alan Ayckbourn of his ghoul- thirsty day, "Monk" Lewis churned out almost a play a year between completing that first novel at the precocious age of 19 and inheriting lucrative estates in the West Indies 18 years later, in 1812. Alas, where now is Adelgitha; or, The Fruit of a Single Error? Alack, will no one speak for Alfonso, King of Castile? What, art thou fled, Timour the Tartar?
If they are anything like , one of his earlier works, they are probably better off languishing in the dungeon of obscurity. Watching Phil Willmott's edited version, you can't help thinking that Lewis was cashing in on the notoriety caused by his literary debut while his dwindling creative stocks lasted. There is little evidence here of the imaginative powers that make The Monk such an addictive brew of violence, eroticism and supernatural darkness.
In part, this must have something to do with the shackles that performance places on Gothic flights of fancy. In giving the solitary reader boundless scope to envisage suggested chimerae, the novel seems ideally suited to the genre, whereas, in the theatre, explicitly rendered phantasmagoria risks snorts of derision. But Lewis is over-restrained to a fault: boasts no interlacing twists of narrative, no extravagant tortures or mass slaughters, just a plot of Ladybird proportions. The beauteous Angela has been carried off to Conwy castle by the wicked Earl Osmond, who wants to marry her in order to secure his title, having dispatched her mother and (so he thinks) father, the castle's rightful owners, 16 years previously. Enter young Percy of Caernavon, Angela's paramour, intent on rescue.
The agent of Osmond's downfall is, in fact, the deus ex machina of his servant Hassan (a haunted-looking Clive Llewellyn), whom he has earlier fatally wounded. Hassan is a slave, who, when dragged from his native land and love did, at one stroke, "banish humanity" from his heart. That Lewis contrives to give him the final say is the play's most interesting point. The well-born writer, an MP who reputedly never uttered a word in parliament, later went on to press for better conditions for slaves. How, one wonders, did Drury Lane theatre- goers respond to this display of righteous vengeance on the part of the oppressed?
In multi-racial, post-X Files Croydon, 200 years later, it's unlikely an audience will be either shocked by the political sentiments, or frighted out of their wits by things that go bump into scenery (the set possesses all the medieval splendour of a ghost train ride). You wish Ted Craig would direct his period-clad cast to ham to the hilt, and milk the melodrama, as the audience tuck into their Glamorgan sausages. But, with the exception of Damien Goodwin's ungainly Percy and Nick Wilton's crude-tongued servant Muley (who makes diners blanch at his descriptions of maggoty flesh), it's only mildly amusing fare. A ghost of a good night. Perhaps it should be called The Disappointment; Or, What do you want? Panto?
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