At the Mountains of Madness

I’ve long been a fan of Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, in which an Antarctica exhibition uncovers the still-living legacy of a previously unknown non-terrestrial civilisation. Time magazine once described the 1931 novella (which comes in at around 40,000 words) as ranking “high among the horror stories of the English language”, although – if I’m being honest – my own particular interest has always been grounded on Lovecraft’s ideas about ancient alien civilisations rather than his sometimes turgid, adjective-heavy writing style.

The overall result is certainly gripping – and, yes, disturbing.

So immediate praise for director Max Lewendel and star Tim Hardy (who co-adapted Lovecraft’s work for the stage) for performing a reasonable editing job which reduces the verbiage without sacrificing either significant plot details or the narrative’s overall tone. Hardy’s performance – this is, essentially, a one-man show with only a few occasional pre-recorded inserts from two other characters – is impressive technically, even if his character’s dramatic journey is necessarily muted by the decision to follow Lovecraft’s first-person-in-hindsight structure to the letter.

The staging is simple and effective enough, with a few items dotted around the stage: a lecturn, a chair, a chest, a table on which sits an old radio receiver/transmitter. Hardy moves between these as required – the chest, for example, playing a role in one of the story’s most gruesome discoveries – while the words of other named characters are heard via the radio, most obviously the initial radio transmissions from the leader of the expedition’s advance group. A subtle touch is the formation of a pentagon – which becomes a significant feature in the plot – from the laying down of rugs on the floor.

Significant contributions to the overall atmosphere come from Theo Holloway’s unsettling musical soundscape and Declan Randall’s lighting, which ably support both Lovecraft’s words and Hardy’s performance. Yet there are disappointments; while Lovecraft is famous for often not describing things, even the inclusion of some shadowy silhouettes might have aided the verbal descriptions of the monstrous creatures described here. (Though not, arguably, the giant blind albino penguins which have to rank among Mr Lovecraft’s less successful ideas.)

The overall result is certainly gripping – and, yes, disturbing. Yet, while watching this Icarus Theatre Collective production of At the Mountains of Madness, there was one niggling question that was never entirely answered. The original novella is very much a tale that’s “told not shown” and, by following that format as closely as they do, you do wonder why Lewendel and Hardy are performing this on a stage rather than on radio. (A point rather underlined by the fact they were selling CDs of the soundtrack at the venue.) This is, undoubtedly, an impressive piece of storytelling, but it still strikes me more as performed reading rather than a genuinely dramatic adaptation.   

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn


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The Blurb

A World Premiere - the first theatre adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s chilling masterpiece ‘At the Mountains of Madness’.

William Dyer is brought vividly to life, trapped and tormented by visions of what he saw – and what he could not possibly have seen – in those ancient, Antarctic mountains of madness.

For nearly a century, this cornerstone of Weird fiction has thrilled readers with its tale of a disastrous expedition to Antarctica and the awful implications of what was discovered.

RSC actor and RADA faculty Tim Hardy, re-joins the collective for his 50th year working in the industry, as the leader of the ill-fated expedition.

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