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I can't believe no one has written a review of or even rated The History of Titus Groan, the 2011 BBC radio dramatization of Mervyn Peake's wonderful Gormenghast trilogy and his widow Maeve Gilmore's moving fourth book, Titus Awakes. To be sure, it's probably best listened to by aficionados of the original novels, because it might be difficult to follow for someone unfamiliar with them. And yet it retains the grotesque grandeur and beauty of the original trilogy, as well as all of the important plot developments and many of the most memorable lines of Peake's prose, and the voice actors are all top notch. However, although I really wanted to like the radio drama and was caught up in most of it and moved or appalled by some of it, too much of it felt hurried and some of it felt irritating.
The radio production is made of six 50 or so minute episodes, Titus Arrives and Titus Inherits (mostly from Titus Groan), Titus Discovers and Titus Departs (mostly from Gormenghast), and Titus Abroad and Titus Alive (mostly from Titus Alone, with a little from Titus Awake). The adaptation begins with Titus arriving as a young man at an island where he takes up with an artist who has been sketching and painting scenes and figures provocatively similar to ones from Titus' past in the castle of his birth, Gormenghast. And as the young man and the older man talk about the pictures, they begin taking turns narrating the radio drama that follows, Titus setting the scenes and giving first-person psychological insights, the artist speaking the third person poetic and painterly descriptions, so that the narrative dialogue between the two provides the listener with context and imagery with which to understand the action and the lines of the various characters. Carl Prekopp and Miranda Richardson are excellent as Steerpike and Lady Gertrude, while Luke Treadaway and David Warner are perfect as the young adult Titus and the Peake-like artist-writer. And the radio-play is enhanced by sound effects (birds calling, babies crying, doors opening, shoe heels clacking, glass breaking, bells ringing, fires burning, and so on). The music usually works well with the story, but I often wished for it to be more spooky and melancholy and less electronic and hokey, especially when a theremin-like instrument warbles up like some old Doctor Who or Star Trek theme song and clashes with Gormenghast's stony, time-eaten buttresses.
I liked the first four episodes, which depict the birth of rebellious Titus (who as an infant violates the Book of Baptism and drops into a lake the symbols of his role as 77th Earl of Gormenghast) and the climb of amoral Steerpike (who as a youth insinuates himself into the heart of the castle) and the effects that both of these have on the ritual-clotted and hermetic castle culture and its eccentric inhabitants. These episodes also include sub-plots like the violent hatred between Flay and Swelter, Keda's tragic love, and Irma Prunesquallor's quest for a husband. Titus and the Artist work together smoothly as co-narrators, and it's a tribute to both Brian Sibley's adaptation and to the voice actors that the essence and texture of the first two dense novels are expressed in the radio medium. It does require concentration, because Sibley's text is distilled Peake, and if you daydream for a moment, you might miss some signpost for the next direction the adaptation takes. And things felt a bit rushed or sketchy for key story arcs like the flood and the hunt for Steerpike.
The last two episodes, which mainly adapt the third book in Peake's trilogy, Titus Alone, made for difficult listening. The disorienting sense of being in a more modern and science fictional world than Gormenghast is effectively conveyed, both by the text and the sound effects for cars, airplanes, police radios, glass surveillance globes, and the like. But Titus is so self-centered, proud, nervous, confused, and often delirious, that Luke Treadaway is too often reduced to sobby or febrile voice acting, which began making me grit my teeth. As in Titus Alone, the courtroom scene is great, but I missed the missing Under River sequence, and was too relieved when Cheeta's surprise party for Titus ends. But the last fifteen minutes, taken from Gilmore's Titus Awakes, movingly conclude the whole thing and nearly redeem all other problems of the dramatization. Titus and the Artist, character and creator, kindred spirits, recognize each other in a simultaneously voiced "You."
If you've read the Gormenghast trilogy and you like well-produced radio dramas, you would probably like this one. But I prefer Sibley's earlier BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (1981) because it's roomier (13:19) than The History of Titus Groan (5:42) and hence has more of its original novels in it.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
What made the experience of listening to The History of Titus Groan the most enjoyable?
Lavish production that keeps the beauty of the language from the novels.
What was one of the most memorable moments of The History of Titus Groan?
The language. Startling, powerful imagery as beautiful as anything I have ever encountered.
Any additional comments?
This is a treasure. Makes the world of Gormenghast accessible.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
A great listen. It works as a stand alone piece or an introduction to the world of Gormenghast. I enjoy it a little more on each listen. Good stuff!
Would you listen to The History of Titus Groan again? Why?
This is a brilliant performance of material that is transfixing to the listener. In this classic serial the production team excelled themselves.
Any additional comments?
I can't recommend it highly enough.