The play, only discovered after his death in 1968, is set (unsurprisingly) in a cave occupied by the same family, a mother, father and two sons, across three distinctly different periods in history. We first meet the family in prehistoric, yet familiar, times; father forced into the role of provider and protector, mother dependant and lavishing adoration on her cowardly and ungrateful son Miles, and Harry the dreaming artist. They live in constant fear of death by the wolves waiting outside the cave and of the ‘moon- woman’, the bright face in the sky capable of shooting fire into their cave!
Peake shines a darkly comical light on the trivial way in which we give meaning to objects and events based on our small and insignificant experiences. He alludes to the dangers such meanings can bring when passed through generations, centuries, going on to form rituals, concepts of accepted social behaviours and even whole belief systems.
Mary bursts into the cave as an intruder, and disrupts the family’s routine of jealousy and resentment. She is fearless and passionate, and in questioning the existence of the moon- woman awakens Harry from his passive conformity but causes the family to fear her. She’s a chaotic free radical, firing into each act to challenge their reality, offering not the comfort of alternative beliefs but simply to bring the message of freedom in realizing the power contained within their own hearts.
Each act, though leaping forward in time, continues the story from the previous. The cyclical nature of events in the play would make for a frustrating, depressing and bleak forecast for the future of humankind, were it not for the undying energy of Mary, the outcast, and her relentless mission to expose the flaws in the ‘truths’ that are dictated by authority.
While there’s a subtle humourous layer in The Cave, it is an uncomfortable portrait of human history and ‘development’. The laughs come generally at the sad recognition of our own fears and petty concerns in the characters. It throws up a snowstorm of questions about faith, duty, love and freedom, which will leave you wanting a second viewing in the hope to attain some order and clarity. However, like Mary, there’s no chance Peake will give us the false luxury of knowing the answers.
Playing at the delightfully intimate Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell, which seats an audience of just fifty, the physically proximity to, as well as the superb performances of the cast serve to absorb you further. The Cave is directed by Aaron Peterson, with close co-operation of Sebastian Peake, Mervyn’s son, who will give a post-show talk on 26th October.
The trailer for Mervyn Peake’s The Cave
The Cave is playing at The Blue Elephant Theatre, 8pm Tues – Sat until 6th November.
To book tickets call +44 (0) 20 7701 0100 or see the Blue Elephant Theatre’s website.Blue Elephant Theatre 59a Bethwin Road Camberwell London SE5 0XT
Images of The Cave are courtesy of Dougie Firth.