One of the most promising moments in Providence: The Shadow Over Lovecraft comes towards the end. Two of Lovecraft’s friends (played by Simon Maeder, who elsewhere usually plays Lovecraft himself, and Dominic Allen) debate whether they should gather and re-publish a posthumous collection of his work. They agree that the horror writer’s legacy is fraught, at once creating “a horror where fear is everywhere”, whilst manifesting the deep and often disturbing moral failings and prejudices that seed those fears. In the end they leave it up to Lovecraft’s readers: put the stuff out; let the people decide.
As Lovecraft’s work undergoes re-appraisal by both literary critics and popular writers such as Alan Moore in his landmark comic book series Providence (both the comic and the production are named after Providence, Rhode Island where Lovecraft lived), there is a lot to wrestle with: misogyny, homophobia, anti-semitism, a fear of almost anything that Lovecraft found to be ‘other’. Such ideas are certainly present here, but ultimately Providence (the play) fails to create a space in which they can be meaningfully explored or given the weight and immediacy they demand. The show seems to want to engage with them, but ends up shouting them instead. The watchword for the style of both performers in this production is bluster. And when the production signals greater sincerity (usually by not shouting), the characters’ newly sincere sentiments are hard to buy into.
Allen and Maeder rightly have fun with the near-vaudevillian superficiality of their sketches. But Allen’s performances vary little between Harold Houdini, Lovecraft’s employer and showman-psychologist David van Bush and Edgar Allan Poe (who here fulfils the role of a kind of interrogator and raconteur to help tell Lovecraft’s life story), and a host of other male and female characters, despite the script paying lip-service to these characters being both very different from each other, and each having a very different relationship with Lovecraft.
These structural problems teeter into ethical ones where Providence presents more serious issues. Too often the play’s hardest topics serve merely as punchlines, including Lovecraft’s mother’s mental health – indicative line: Poe shouts, “OR YOU’LL GO MAD LIKE YOUR MOTHER DID” – as well as the Lovecraft’s own prejudices. Maeder’s dialogue as Lovecraft seeks laughter at his outrageous statements on Jews and women. But the show does not handle these themes carefully, treating them with deliberate, clumsy bluntness.
It is also worth saying that this blown-raspberry response to anti-semitism chimes badly with the times, even more so now than when the show was staged at the Vaults Festival in London last Spring. Audiences generally expect theatre-makers to have thought more (or more divergently) about key issues in the play than they would have done themselves: Providence does not only not provide this, but feels like a refusal of this very premise.
This all results in Providence becoming something of a theatrical and intellectual dead end, despite the often impressive technical work that has gone into it. Maeder and Allen are both skilled performers. Previous work with SuperBolt Theatre and Belt-up respectively attest this, as does their precise and entertaining use of mime. The show might be at its best in the moments when Wilfred Petherbridge’s sound design becomes the star: it is in the terrible, void-opening noises of monsters such as the Cthulhu that Providence captures something in its depiction of monstrosity that cuts through and resonates further.
This somewhat muddled presentation of Lovecraft’s life story leaves little to rest on for those who do not already have at least a passing familiarity for it. And for those already familiar with dialogues around Lovecraft’s legacy, this play struggles to find ground that has not been covered better elsewhere. Moore’s comic book (all the more unfortunately since it has the same name) explores many of the same issues in Lovecraft’s character with far more subtlety, deftness and imagination. For audiences whose jumping-off point is Moore, this is likely to be one of several shadows over The Shadow Over Lovecraft that is difficult to step out of.
Providence is on at Assembly Rooms until 25th August, as part of the 2018 Edinburgh fringe. More info here.