photo: Alan Fletcher
William John Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck (17 September 1800 – 6 December 1879) was a man with a very long name who is better known as the 5th Duke of Portland. His old stomping ground was Welbeck Abbey, where he employed thousands of local people through his various construction projects. Most notable of which were miles of underground tunnels, a roller skating rink and a ballroom where he never held a ball.
The Duke’s life was fictionalised in Mick Jackson’s brilliant debut novel The Underground Man in 1997. At the time of writing Jackson was working part-time as a special needs assistant. His compassionate portrait of a man prone to bizarre, eccentric and often hilarious existential theorising is at the heart of the novel, all of which has been sensitively captured by Nick Wood’s adaptation.
The play is performed in the dark and intimate space of the Neville Room with the audience seated around a small rectangular space. The Duke was the product of much gossip during his life and so the seating arrangement helped reinforce this sense of enclosure. The minimalist stage, created by NTU graduate Harriet Clarke, consists of a set of cogs, presumably symbolising the mechanics of the Duke’s mind, a hopscotch board, a small table with a cuddly monkey and a multi-functioning desk that acted mainly as a bed.
The play is a two-hander which focuses on the relationship between the eccentric Duke (Iain Armstrong) and his loyal and incredibly patient butler Clement (Mick Jasper). The Duke immediately comes across as a hypochondriac, constantly searching for remedies for his failing body. But overtime it becomes clear that his problems are psychological and relate to some traumatic childhood experiences.
The Victorian era (1837 – 1901) waved goodbye to the rationalism of the Georgian period and ushered in more romantic and mystical views to religion, the arts and social values. This led to some ill-informed opinions and bizarre theories as to the very nature of existence. The Duke is endemic of this new wave of enquiry, demanding a ‘neck man’ and a ‘head man’ to cure him of his perceived ills and has no qualms about consulting with two sisters who claim to be able to diagnose illness by seeing into the body (all additional parts are played by Mick Jasper). What struck me about this was how little has changed! The internet is awash with fanciful theories and now thanks to social media, everyone has a platform to share them.
The Duke’s theorising is hilarious, profound, and occasionally beautiful in its naivety - his theory as to what happens to buried bones under the earth could easily bring a tear to your eye. These are all delivered with an enthusiasm and gusto that’s utterly infectious, though he tests the patience of his loyal inner circle who love and fear for him in equal measures.
The novel contains two graphic scenes that I imagine are very difficult to emulate on stage. Therefore playwright Nick Wood has wisely decided to leave these to our imagination. I think this works for two reasons: Firstly, Mick Jasper takes on numerous roles throughout the play and so the audience is used to suspending disbelief. But most importantly there is a brilliant scene when the Duke is led down into a pinhole cave at Creswell Crags and the stage fills with a glorious kaleidoscope of colour. It’s such a powerful presence on an otherwise dark set that the image comes flooding back when events take a turn later on.
Although this is a well-acted and thoroughly enjoyable two-hander, special congratulations should go to musician Nigel Waterhouse who is the Lionel Messi of accordion playing. He was vital in creating atmosphere, the highlight of which was emulating the noise of a train.
This play would be of interest to anyone interested in local history. But it’s also a meditation on age, life, love and loneliness. Watching a lovable character descend into madness reminded me of Ray Gosling’s compassionate and prescient observation of patients at Whittingham Hospital Asylum: “It’s a community of very sensitive people.”
The Underground Man is at the Neville Studio, Playhouse, until Saturday 8 October 2016.