Theatre Review: The Call of Cthulhu

call of cthulhu

By Keri O’Shea

Last year, I had my first experience of Lovecraftian theatre at the Abertoir film festival – and let me tell you, it was something of a revelation; not a revelation along the lines of those suffered by Lovecraft’s tortured protagonists, mind, but more of a lesson in how Lovecraft’s tales can jump off the page when told in the form of dramatic monologue. The form, being more intimate than film, successfully added humanity and gravitas to a retelling of The Temple – one of HPL’s most problematic, even most easily-derided stories, for its somewhat caricatured German character and his verbose patriotism, even in the face of madness. Not so, as told by dramatist Michael Sabbaton – here, The Temple could assume its rightfully grotesque proportions, lowering over a very real, very terrified man, one who realistically seemed to have struggled with the death of his rational self.

Proof of a select skill and a rare talent, this kind of storytelling; as such, I was very excited to catch up with my second of Sabbaton’s monologues, this time based on that gateway horror story, The Call of Cthulhu. The performance took place in the kind of place which could, to my mind, only thrive so well in the city of Leeds; known for its stubborn reclamation of disused urban spaces, turning them into all things weird and wonderful, The Holbeck Underground Ballroom (or HUB) is a small theatre which shelters underneath a soot-blackened railway arch, alongside a number of other small businesses in the same area. This dimly-lit, frankly chilly venue (albeit with free blankets provided) has the sort of particular relationship with outsider drama which makes it perfect for a performance of this kind. The Call of Cthulhu was a complete sell out, with standing room only, which added a great deal to the atmosphere. I also couldn’t help but think that this kind of space outside conventional space was just perfect for Lovecraft and his beloved themes…

The Call of Cthulhu is without doubt one of Lovecraft’s most familiar stories. I can therefore keep the synopsis brief: a man, Francis Wayland Thurston, recounts the development of a sanity-crushing series of events pertaining to a mysterious, but powerful type of god. He first encountered the …deity, whose name he can barely bring himself to form, via his uncle, Professor Angell, who in his turn developed an interest in the Cthulhu creature from his in-depth work with a tortured young Rhode Island artist, Henry Wilcox, who had rendered the strange entity in clay form after experiencing fever-dreams of a mysterious, gargantuan city. The trail of references to Cthulhu didn’t stop there, stretching all the way out to a police officer in New Orleans named Legrasse, who had busted a heathen cult of Cthulhu-worshippers – and further still, to a news article from Australia, discussing the mysterious fate of the crew of The Emma, originally bound for home in Norway. The cult is clearly global, ancient and – somehow powerful. His experiences of this knowledge have left Thurston traumatised and afraid.

“The most merciful thing in the world…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents,” says Sabbaton’s Thurston as he opens his monologue on a dark, object-scattered stage – and you believe this to be true, via the clear evidence of his fears on his face and in his voice. This is, remember, no straightforward story choice for a monologue; the chapters, the multiple points of view and descriptions of the evidence upon which Thurston bases his fears all demand leaps of imagination from the audience, and – rather than spend time restructuring the story to make it more drama-friendly, Sabbaton largely leaves it intact, picking up the hugely challenging task of enacting several of the story’s characters.

Bear in mind that he is a solo performer; the actor therefore does absolutely sterling work changing his demeanour and voice for each of the characters he speaks – Thurston, Angell, Wilcox, Legrasse – picking up their part of the story in turn. It’s pretty likely that most, if not all of the audience, however, were already familiar with this structure and could soon tell what was coming. As a note of caution, those who don’t know the story may well find this taxing in places, as the story is overall not as accessible nor linear as The Temple. However, Sabbaton does render the story down to an extent, cutting down on some of the original’s level of detail. This is no doubt necessary, for this format.

But it is scary? In a word, yes; this version of The Call of Cthulhu, with its modest but judicious use of sound and light, effectively evokes those beloved Lovecraftian terrors. My own particular favourite moment came with Wilcox as our speaker, describing his dream of the sunken city of R’lyeh. Via the simple device of coloured light (plunging the stage into a creepy lurid green) and of course sound, which complemented Sabbaton’s agonised spoken performance, you could really let your imagination be spoken to. It was easy to differentiate between his characters, too, and each added to the sense of foreboding, so that – although the end of the monologue didn’t encompass a great deal of the ‘Norwegian’ chapter, I felt that its final focus on Thurston’s plight was overall a thought-provoking, successful place to conclude.

I very much enjoyed The Call of Cthulhu. Speaking with consistent believability and fervour, what actor Michael Sabbaton does with the base text here is nothing short of impressive, and I’d urge fans to keep an eye out for his performances in future. The briefest compliment I can pay here is to say that Sabbaton gets Lovecraft, and it would certainly make my aeon if he’d consider doing The Shadow over Innsmouth one day…

For more information about Michael Sabbaton’s work, click here.