NEXT STOP, WONDERLAND
by Laura Jacobs
Vanity Fair, May 2000
the BBCs four-part fantasy-scape
It begins with a royal birth that looks like the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Then it cuts to the kingdom’s kitchen, a pig-squealing, sweltering hell from which a slim young man escapes in search of light. In these antic, frantic first minutes you may be tempted to change the channel. Don’t. It takes time to get your bearings in “Gormenghast.”
What is “Gormenghast”?! It’s king Author’s court seen through Lewis Carrol’s looking glass. It’s Shakespeare’s Richard III as Dickens would have written it. To wit, it’s Mervyn Peake’s unclassifiable masterpiece, a trilogy of novels published in 1946, 1950, and 1959 which today sits shoulder to shoulder with Tolkien’s tales. Now it is a four-part mini-series, five years in the making. The rich result, which airs on BBC America this June, has pleased even the protective Peake family.
Well, who wouldn’t be pleased? The cast is thrilling, beginning with Ian Richardson as Lord Groan, a heart-broken Lear who ends not on the hearth but believing he’s an owl. Celia Imrie’s Queen Gertrude, no milennial mommy she, has a voice of gravel, a spine of steel; I couldn’t get enough of her. The king’s idiot twin sisters (Zoe Wanamaker and Lynsey Baxter) are a sidewhow enchantment, while Christopher Lee, as Flay, is a Merlin of Gravitas. As for Steerpike, the lithe Lucifer who escapes from the kitchen, he’s played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers in a protean performance. Don’t let the Burne Jones mouth fool you-he’s Irish, with quicksilver instincts at his service. His energy, his beauty, his punk abandon-Meyers makes Steerpike a Mozartean anti-hero, the wrong kind of sublime. He gets you every time. (Rating: ****)
Special thanks to Heatherjune for transcribing this review.