Melmoth the Wanderer with Big Telly

Artistic director Zoë Seaton's adaptation of the 'first ever horror novel' brings it back to its roots in Ireland 

‘It’s a bit like watching Morecambe and Wise do a horror movie,’ reflects scriptwriter Nicola McCartney. She is talking about Melmoth the Wanderer, Portstewart theatre company Big Telly’s new production. It is visiting 14 different venues in Ireland (and one in Scotland) over the coming weeks.

Melmoth the Wanderer, often labelled the first-ever horror novel, is a bulky 700 pages long as originally published in 1820. It is little read nowadays outside the corridors of academia, and is burdened with the stylistic paraphernalia and clunking symbolism of the Gothic romance. It is far from being an obvious choice to adapt theatrically for 21st century audiences.

Big Telly artistic director, Zoë Seaton (pictured below) is, however, anything but a student of the obvious. ‘It’s an amazing book, an extraordinary book,’ she enthuses. ‘Virtually unknown that it’s Irish,’ she adds, pointing out that author Charles Maturin was a Protestant clergyman born in Dublin, and that Melmoth’s framework narrative is set in Ireland.

What’s amazing about Melmoth, says Seaton, is the novel’s mesmeric, at times virtually psychopathic depiction of the darker forces rooted deep in human nature, which no one is immune from. ‘It seems to be saying time and time again that evil is within ourselves,’ she comments. ‘You can really see where The Picture of Dorian Gray comes from.’

Seaton’s reference to Oscar Wilde’s tale of the doomed, self-regarding aesthete is no coincidence. Maturin was Wilde’s great-uncle, and Wilde himself was greatly influenced by his novel, adopting the name Melmoth as an alias when exiled in France on his release from prison.

Nicola McCartney agrees that Melmoth is fundamentally about ‘the true nature of evil'. She points also, however, to the novel’s pronounced streak of black comedy. Maturin toys deliberately with the staid conventions of Gothic fiction, bluntly juxtaposing acts of vicious violence with moments of levity and absurd humour.

Finding a way to theatrically represent this madcap, schizophrenic streak in Melmoth was no easy task for Seaton and McCartney. The answer came ‘by accident', recalls Seaton, from Comedy Hijack, a project she was working on with John Wright. ‘John spent a day doing a half-mask chorus. We’d been working on Melmoth, and when we saw the half-mask chorus we all went, “They are the ones to tell it!”’

For Seaton, the use of half-masks is the perfect method of combining the flexibility of identity needed by the four actors who play the different characters in McCartney’s adaptation, with the comic element she views as essential to the drama’s message.

‘The spirit of the half-mask,’ explains Seaton, ‘is that of the buffoon, approaching everything, both horrible and humorous, with equal amounts of glee and relish. And there’s something terrifying about that, something psychopathic about treating everything the same way.’

‘Like a kind of early 19th century version of Scream,’ interjects McCartney, referencing Wes Craven’s infamous 1996 American slasher film.

‘What we were really drawn to,’ adds Seaton, ‘is the ability to do something very dark and then flip it. It can be dark and horrific, and people can be having a terrible time, and then say, “We’re just joking.”’

It helps, says Seaton, that the half-mask chorus she has recruited for Melmoth are ‘the four funniest actors I’ve ever encountered'. All are Irish (from Dublin, Limerick, Omagh and Belfast respectively), and they are given considerable elbow-room in McCartney’s script.

Improvising sections of their stories, like jazz soloists riffing spontaneously within a pre-determined overall structure, 'they do improvise a lot,’ laughs Seaton. ‘And it's genuinely funny and different every time they do it.’ The fifth character, meanwhile – a dark, mysterious stranger who has sold his soul to the devil – is played by an English actor. ‘Deliberate,’ says Seaton, ‘because in the book Melmoth is English.’

The raw subject matter of Melmoth the Wanderer is undeniably dark and unsettling. However, Big Telly’s finished product, promises Seaton, will first and foremost be ‘a good night out’ in the theatre. ‘It isn’t challenging in the sense of being offensive or difficult,’ she says. ‘It’s going to be funny and engaging, like stand-up comedy meets theatre, with a bit of a Fawlty Towers thing going on in it.’

McCartney nods in agreement, but stresses that Melmoth is also startlingly modern in its themes and preoccupations. ‘So many of the stories in the novel are about families who reach breaking point under really strained economic conditions,’ she comments. ‘Which makes it incredibly contemporary. It’s always money that opens the door for the evil acts to start.’

And while Seaton herself has personally shied away from writing about Northern Ireland’s own violent history, she sees surprising, unintentional resonances in Melmoth. ‘I think this play is as much about the Troubles as any I’ve ever seen,’ she says, reflectively. ‘It’s about how people can be seduced into being evil.’

This production of Melmoth the Wanderer marks the 25th anniversary of the Portstewart company. Seaton founded Big Telly, and is in no sense resting on her laurels. The Scarlet Web, a new play about internet infidelity by Mary Kelly and Briana Corrigan, will be staged later this year.

Otherworld, a floating theatre installation, is another intriguing project currently in development. ‘We’ve done a lot of shows in water,’ explains Seaton. ‘We’re now putting that in a space outdoors, which can tour coastal resorts. It’ll be a floating structure which people can go into and sit in, and the water is the centre of it.’

Innovations like Otherworld are undoubtedly important to Seaton’s company as it moves forward. She remains, however, unflinchingly loyal to the company’s original objective.

‘We’ve always wanted to be accessible,’ she explains. ‘We’re delighted we’re going to the Tron in Glasgow with Melmoth, and to have been in the West End with Puckoon. That’s all important. But we’ve also always wanted to sell out in Magherafelt, that’s always been our thing.

‘My personal ambition has always been for people who do not consider themselves arts aficionados to come along and say, “Do you know what? It was bloody good and I felt part of that".’

For more information about Melmoth the Wanderer's dates and venues, check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide.