The story of the 5th Duke of Portland, William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck is, without doubt, an interesting one. As told by Nick Wood, adapting Mick Jackson’s 1997 novel, the Duke became famous for his reclusive behaviour, his eccentric development projects – including the extensive network of underground tunnels that prompt the title of both novel and play – and his tendency to hide when addressed directly. Perhaps going beyond the historical record, this story also includes a floating apparition of a young boy, a gory self-trepanning and death by gunshot while roaming his estate naked on all fours. Bringing the tale to Nottingham Playhouse, ajtc theatre company seek to revive a local legend.
Yet the potential of the story is squandered by an adaptation that makes two crucial mistakes. The first is a disconnect of form and content. The Duke is a recluse, but by placing Iain Armstrong’s William centrally as the only ever-present character, speaking to a range of different characters played by Mick Jasper, the impression the production gives is one of a very sociable man. The Duke engages in lively debate with his butler, Clement (the main supporting character); goes caving with a friendly local vicar; engages in amiable relationships with his driver and other servants; builds a relationship with a local doctor; and seeks out professors and other experts who can help him with his imagined ailments. This connectedness to the world is at direct odds with a script that vainly tries to insist on the Duke’s eccentric shielding of himself from the world.
The second issue is the play’s dull linearity. By the interval, it is entirely unclear why the company have any interest in telling the story at all, as the first half is mostly devoted to the Duke suffering from an unexplained stomach ache. The Duke’s eccentricities are mentioned, and there is a scene discussing the tunnels (an element one would expect to be a major feature, but which is in fact barely touched upon elsewhere), but the play instead dramatises in quite tedious detail the complaints of the Duke about the pain he is in and Clement’s suggestions for how he might go about dealing with it.
The play comes alive in the second half, thankfully. The scene in which Armstrong calmly describes himself drilling into his own skull, while Jasper chips in, is compelling in its graphic detail, but also ties the play thematically together as the Duke matter-of-factly discusses his need for release. This central sequence connects to the beautifully staged experience of pin-point light patterns in an underground cave (the hole in the ceiling corresponding to the hole later drilled into the Duke’s head) and, at the other end, the Duke’s final return to nature. The play asks for too much investment with too little return early on, however; this is a story that would benefit from structural innovation, especially as the linear narrative imposes a coherence that rather mutes the effect of the Duke’s own disorientation.
The issues are in the adaptation rather than the production. Jasper switches fluidly between costumes and finds subtle distinctions among a series of quite similar roles. He is quietly moving as the blind neck specialist who eases the Duke’s pain and is rewarded with the chance to touch the Duke’s face, and comically ridiculous as the priest showing childish delight in showing off the bones of a ‘woolly rhino’. Armstrong alternates between dignified and phlegmatic as the Duke, and is best in his impatient casting off of the ever-loyal but concerned Clement. The play forces him to revert to a narrator role when the Duke’s eccentricities come too much to the fore, resulting in a performance that appears not only sociable but also rational, and thus again at tonal odds with what is being described, but this dispassionate distance works especially well for the gorier incidents.
Andrew Breakwell’s production is idiosyncratic and handsome, particularly benefitting from the accordion score played live onstage by Nigel Waterhouse, which adds a quirky and often poignant air to the Duke’s wanderings. When the production stretches itself – a frenetic horse-and-carriage ride through the tunnels, for instance – it is imaginative and pacey, but too often there are long sequences of waiting while the Duke dresses and undresses himself, and the fussiness with which a single piece of set is repeatedly moved very slightly to create different scenes is distracting. When the play hits its stride, it hints at something profound in the desire to escape and the exploration of the mental and spiritual boundaries that even the most privileged construct to trap themselves; like its protagonist, though, the play needs to break free of its own constraints.
The Underground Man runs at Nottingham Playhouse until October 8th. Click here for more details.