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Climbing the Mountains of Madness: Bringing Lovecraft to the London Stage

TL Wiswell is the brains behind the London Lovecraft Festival. In 2016 her gender-switched interpretation of H.P. Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness was a sell-out success at 2016’s London Horror Festival. In February 2018 Wiswell put together a programme of shows at Camden Town’s Etcetera Theatre to include the premiere of her second reinterpretation of the old misogynist’s work, The Thing of the Doorstep: Asenath’s Tale. Playing to packed houses the London Lovecraft Festival was a resounding success and now looks set to become an annual fixture on the London Horror scene.

Mountains of Madness at London Lovecraft Festival

I thought the idea of putting women into the driving seat of Lovecraft’s work was a pretty radical thing to do given the author’s frightful reputation for misogyny so I decided to find out some more about Wiswell and what exactly makes her tick:

“So who am I? I’m a playwright from America who’s been living in London for 11 years. I’ve seen over a hundred plays a year every year since I moved here and have been running Webcowgirl’s Live in the Cheap Seats, a theatre review blog most of that time. I started writing plays about four years ago when I was recovering from a long illness and had time on my hands – I had an idea for a play about my family and wanted to see if I could do it. That play, Three Brothers, took me a year to write. But almost as soon as I’d finished it I had an idea for another play, and I had a lot better idea about how to put it together, that was The Xmas Carol, my first staged play. Nowadays I’m well enough to be working full time, but I really enjoy writing, and it’s much more fun to write my own stuff than it is to review other people’s work so that’s my focus. I set myself goals for how many plays I want to write in a year and try to find cracks in my schedule when I can work on them. I still go out to the theatre every week, though.

My influences as a playwright are Ibsen for plotting and characters, O’Neill for the approval to shamelessly use people I know in my work, and Tennessee Williams for how to live the lifestyle. I really like to make people that feel like they’re flesh and blood, even if they’re necromancers, and all of my favourite playwrights create effortlessly believable characters. For modern writers, you can’t beat Mike Bartlett and Jez Butterworth. I have no hope of ever being that good but it’s nice to know what you’re aiming for. On the other hand, I probably am more motivated to write by mediocre plays than great ones. They give me hope that maybe one day somebody else might stage my plays.”

So what was it about Lovecraft that piqued Wiswell’s curiosity?: “I got into Lovecraft as a suitable source for plays back when I lived in Seattle” she continued, “and the Open Circle Company there did a suite of Lovecraft plays every Halloween – three short ones, all quite differently staged, over many years. I hadn’t read any Lovecraft before, so I went into the performances quite unprepared, but I thought they were delicious fun. They gave me ideas about what worked and what didn’t in horror storytelling, and when, after I started writing plays and was looking for what might be a good entry for the London Horror Festival, Lovecraft came to mind right away. I’d seen a few more Lovecraft plays since I’d been in London and was really inspired by an interview I did with David Dawkins of Ororo Productions about his interpretation of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror at the 2011 London Horror Festival https://webcowgirl.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/preview-dunwich-horror-ororo-productions-at-the-london-horror-festival/ … his statement that Lovecraft was the first horror writer to have lost your sanity as a primary horror was a great thing to try to wrap my head around. And of course, I’ve had my enthusiasm ramped up by all of the Charles Stross I’ve read and endless games like Cthulu Flux and Chez Cthulu. I felt like I could tackle Lovecraft and wrest a good night of theatre out of the source material.”

Given the intimate nature of the performance space and the budget, Wiswell’s spin on Lovecraft involves a very small cast (three for Mountains of Madness and just two for The Thing of the Doorstep: Asenath’s Tale) but that isn’t the most radical thing about the plays as she explained: “The one thing that is quite different for both of my Lovecraft plays was that I made the decision before I wrote them to gender-switch the characters. Lovecraft doesn’t write a lot of women, but to me female scientists and inventors seem quite normal, and I didn’t see how the plays would suffer with the change. There’s also some feelings about Lovecraft being a misogynist and a racist, and I liked the idea of just taking my freedom as a writer and doing his works in a way that modern audiences would find more satisfying. I felt it kind of righted the balance. And to be honest, I was so overwhelmed the depth of raw talent I saw in front of me when I did the auditions for Mountains of Madness that I really wanted to produce another play that would give our fantastic London actresses more opportunities to strut their stuff. It was honestly humbling. I don’t deserve to have had that level of talent in my crummy little fringe shows and I wanted to give back to them.

Both Mountains of Madness and The Thing of the Doorstep are well known Lovecraft works, well written and satisfyingly creepy. Mountains of Madness is about an expedition to the Antarctic that goes horribly wrong when it discovers ancient creatures frozen beneath the ice. It’s beautifully, even poetically, written, with lovely descriptions of the ice and the skies. I’m actually kind of excited about polar expeditions and this was a fairly natural choice for me, especially knowing that Del Toro had failed to get it made into a movie. Then when my production was a ridiculous success – I mean, we had people sitting on the stairs at the Old Red Lion Theatre (the venue of the 2016 London Horror Festival) – I became very positive about writing an another Lovecraft play.”

With a wealth of material to choose from, what made Wiswell plump for The Thing on the Doorstep: “I was trying to find a story that was a good two hander, and was recommended Rats in the Walls, Pickman’s Model, and Thing on the Doorstep. What appealed to me about The Thing on the Doorstep was that it is about a man who has his body taken over by a necromancer and then shows up at his best friend’s house wearing someone else’s skin to ask the friend to go murder the creature living in his body. I wanted to gender-switch it again but there were some issues because the baddie of the play makes a big deal of how he can only be a really kick-ass necromancer if he’s in a man’s body. This made me wonder about the character of Asenath Waite, the daughter of this necromancer. If I did a straight gender swap, her dad wouldn’t be interested in stealing another woman’s body, period, based on what Ephraim says. And I thought, what would that do to her, growing up with her dad treating her like she was always second best? So instead of copying Lovecraft’s story about the person who marries someone who wants to steal their body, I wrote about the person who wants to marry someone to steal their body… for their dad.

I was ambiguous, though, about to what extent Asenath realizes what her dad’s plans for her husband, Edward Denby are. And rereading the story, it was clear that Lovecraft meant us to see that Ephraim had already kicked Asenath out of her body before she even meets Edward, but I thought that wasn’t nearly as wrenching as seeing Asenath fighting with her own dad to maintain control of her body. Lovecraft just writes Asenath as a disposable baddie; fair cop as she’s actually Ephraim. But in my play, which I amended to Asenath’s Tale, I have a daughter having to deal with an ultimate betrayal. Edward, in the original story, is pretty much a dumb schmuck who has it coming. Asenath, in my play, is a tragic individual. It’s fun to stage, though, because you have one actress playing three people – Asenath herself, Edward Denby, and Ephraim Waite.”

Mountains of Madness at London Lovecraft Festival

However completing the play led to bigger things as Wiswell continues: “As it turns out, though, I missed the deadline for submission to the 2017 London Horror Festival, and I was really frustrated. I didn’t want to wait a whole year to see this play come to life so I decided to organise my own Lovecraft Festival, working with the people who’d already done Lovecraft elsewhere (at the London Horror Festival and the Brighton Fringe and Brighton Horror Festival). I felt confident enough about its prospects for success that I signed a contract with the Etcetera Theatre before I even had any other companies on board. In the end, we were one submission short so I revived Mountains of Madness to fill the gap rather than just premiere The Thing of the Doorstep: Asenath’s Tale, but I was able to double cast the shows so that the two women who were in The Thing of the Doorstep: Asenath’s Tale were also in Mountains of Madness. That said, I had hoped from the start to have Natalie Morgan in Asenath’s Tale as she was so great to work with in Mountains of Madness, but I wasn’t originally planning on turning the week into such a marathon.

Now, though, I might present the two shows together, say at the Brighton Horror Festival. I’m also hoping to remount The Thing of the Doorstep: Asenath’s Tale, at this year’s London Horror Festival. The audience response to both shows at the London Lovecraft Festival was great, all four nights sold out. It makes me feel pretty good about the support for Lovecraft on stage, and since the festival itself sold out eight of the thirteen shows, it’s looking very much like we’ll be running it again next year.”

Outside of reinterpreting Lovecraft Wiswell has other plans: “What’s next for me personally is a play in the Camden Fringe Festival, How I Became a Dominatrix through Damned Lies and Statistics, which has got a five day run at the Etcetera Theatre starting on July 30th. I haven’t written it yet so my feet are being held to the flames. This is a Vulcanello Productions show but it’s being done in collaboration with 2nd Self, who do more stuff about the dark side of human nature and erotic self-realization. That said, I’m also writing it as a comedy, like Noel Coward does 50 Shades of Grey, and I think it should be a real hoot, with live demonstrations of how to tie people up during the show. I’m hoping that Erin Wilson, who played Viola in The Thing of the Doorstep: Asenath’s Tale and Danforth in Mountains of Madness, will be in this show. But before it even starts I’ll be ramping up for the 2019 Lovecraft Festival, which I’m hoping to have a musical piece in, either a panto or maybe a Gilbert and Sullivan adaptation. My big dream is to stage The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath as an opera, but I honestly think I’ll need about a year and a half to get it up and going, and July is too late to start writing it.”

Ambitious plans indeed and I’m sure that as master of the weird H.P. Lovecraft would have appreciated the fact that, but for a missed deadline, the resounding success of the first ever London Lovecraft Festival would never have happened.

About Simon Ball

Simon is a child of the 1960s, his marmie liked Affred Hitchcock and he grew up on a diet of classic Dr Who, Hammer Horror, Heavy Metal, Goth and Spaghetti Westerns. He cut his journalistic teeth in 1976 interviewing the bass player from an unknown band called Motorhead, now what was his name? Since then he wasted several years in corporate PR, edited heritage products and got an MA in the History of Science before he fell off the truck and returned to the world he loves best. Simon is Editor in Chief of the Horror Hothouse website and a regular contributor to the Spooky Isles.

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