Mervyn Peake’s theatrical ambitions failed to reach fruition in his lifetime. The numerous plays which he wrote generally went unproduced, and often unseen. The Cave was only published in 1996, and this production, directed by Aaron Paterson, is its world premiere.
The Cave tells the story of three iterations of the same family, taking shelter in the same cave over more than a thousand years of history. They shift from terror at a crude moon god, though pious and thoughtless Christianity, to a new terror at the modern god of the atomic bomb. As the generations progress, they return time and time again to questions which Peake considered central to the human condition: the conflict between scepticism and belief, the power of the artist and the chaotic force of love.
Despite such fundamental human themes, the play is fatally undramatic. The language is flashy rather than profound, too often contenting itself with cod-Symbolist bombast and platitude. Peake repeatedly tells rather than shows, and with half-formed characters and concepts the action quickly becomes tedious.
The cast perform well, with Sebastian Aguirre in particular impressing as the artistic outsider, but there is only so much that can be done with such a cold and difficult script. While the cloth-draped set is strong, a strange and fragmented lighting design adds very little. There is some clear talent involved in this production, but like the family it features, it is ultimately entombed by Peake’s verbiage.