‘Maud’ is probably my favourite poem in the English language ever.
Tennyson often gets bashed even by the most academic types for being “too musical” or for being too patriotic in poems like ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. Though these criticisms are extremely reductive, the one poem these critics have obviously not looked into enough, is ‘Maud’. ‘Maud’ is something like an extended Edgar Allan Poe poem, in which the speaker’s sanity (or lack thereof) is explored through his fixation with a woman with a memorable name, in fantastic musical metre, full to the brim with gothic imagery.
Don’t be put off by the poem’s size – it’s not heavy and unnecessarily wordy. It’s musical, it’s an incredible exploration of the human psyche and it’s unpredictable, constantly changing its metre and tone. In other words, it’s epic in both senses.
But the most striking thing about this poem for me is its theatricality. It doesn’t just take the velvety voice of Benedict Cumberbatch and the like to read this poem. The madness and despair in this poem is written and needs to be read as an actor would read his script. Director Tabitha Hayward realised the dramatic quality of ‘Maud’ and made the brilliant decision to adapt it for the stage for the benefit of us all!
A lot of the poem has been cut, especially from the third part of the poem in which the protagonist goes off to fight in the war as a way of regaining his sanity. But for a project such as this, this is necessary. Bringing the war in after all the themes already explored in the first two halves of the poem would have been difficult for most audience members not familiar with the poem to follow, not to mention would have added in more and far too many lines for the talented Johnny Lucas to learn.
Johnny Lucas’s acting was tremendous. I knew all of the poem is written from the perspective of one speaker, but I was very impressed when I was told Lucas was taking on the role of the poem’s speaker in a one man show. Parts of ‘Maud’ may seem easy to learn as so much of it is written in song form, making it easy to remember through its regular metre and rhyme. But because Tennyson is so obsessed with sound in this poem, much of it sounds similar to what’s come before, be it in theme or in its wording, and so just the fact he didn’t jumble up the order of the stanzas at any point or slip up on any words is a real achievement.
However, quite apart from his line learning, his delivery was on point. His physicality mirrored that of a man made frail by madness consistently throughout. His eyes widened as if they were opening up to consume you, his limbs flailed around uncontrollably, the very twitch of his bare toes or fingers was calculated and effective. I also found it very interesting that his voice carried the poetry so well, but also in quite a unique style. At points he didn’t annunciate in order to bring clarity to the words he spoke as you would expect any actor to. What he did is, in select places he deliberately cracked or mingled words together in order to put across the sound of the poem. Tennyson’s alliteration and sibilance in places after all, demands that the words do not become separate from each other. I mean seriously, just try reading the first stanza of the poem aloud:
I HATE the dreadful hollow behind the little wood,
Its lips in the field above are dabbled with blood-red heath,
The red-ribb’d ledges drip with a silent horror of blood,
And Echo there, whatever is ask’d her, answers “Death”.
Emphasising the way the words slink into one another was a risky choice for Lucas, but it paid off.
The whole production’s aesthetic was wonderful and the Burton Taylor Studio was the perfect place to stage it. Such a small, intimate, boxed-in theatre really gave you the perfect sense of claustrophobia you need to feel when allowed insight into a distressed, maddened soul. It really allowed Lucas to come face to face with the audience, at times getting uncomfortably close, managing to make plenty of eye-contact with the disturbed audience.
The set-design, designed by Ruth Miller was minimal and effective – there was wine, and pills of course, to either explain the speaker’s madness away, or to show us the means by which he tries to numb it. A bird cage was on the table, bringing attention to the speaker’s feeling caged in, entrapped in his mental state. And of course, a giant board with a picture of the speaker’s father (whose suicide has caused the speaker’s insanity) was hung on the side. On the same board were multiple etchings of the name “Maud” everywhere to highlight the speaker’s obsession with her.
The one issue I did have with the piece was the handling of perhaps the most famous passage of the entire poem, the “Come into the Garden Maud” bit. Here the speaker, having snuck into Maud’s garden on the night of her party is meant to speak with all the flowers in Maud’s garden asking them why she is yet to come out and meet him, and then claims his “dust would hear her and beat,/Had [he] lain for a century dead;/ Would start and tremble under her feet, And blossom in purple and red.” Most of this was cut due to, as Hayward told me, her not wanting to make his madness too comical or ridiculous. But in my view, although it’s always difficult to portray madness, actually including some of the “weirder” bits with flower talking, disconcerting cackling, etc. would have been more challenging and interesting. What’s unexpected helps us feel uncomfortable in a multitude of different ways – “madness” doesn’t have to be just melancholy or just raving and maybe experimenting with this a bit more could have helped add more layers to the character. This is such a beautiful and theatrical passage, and in many ways the climax of the poem, so it would have been a dream to see it realised to a fuller extent. Even something as small as a splash of colour onto the stage via a projector or red lights at some point to mark the purple and red blossoming of speaker’s heart could have helped make this pivotal scene sharper for me.
However, I cannot fault the production for not having enough projected onto the walls and the screen as of the point where Hayward mad the inspired choice to project film onto the BT Studio’s walls. As “Scarborough Fair” played ominously in the background, filmed snippets of a girl representing ‘Maud’ were played for us so that the audience could have a visual aid in understanding what exactly haunted the speaker. Not to mention, the film snippets (filmed by Miller and edited by producer Lauren Jackson) were a perfect way of expressing much of the imagery of the poem. My favourite moment was when Lucas described ‘Maud’ and the camera slowly zoomed in right up to her face. Lucas began outlining it with his fingers and stroking it till the camera intrusively zoomed further in and made only one of her eyes visible to us. It was genius, genius, genius!
Ultimately, I cannot describe what a wonderful feeling it is to see one of your favourite (and unknown) pieces of literature come to life in the way I saw it do so yesterday. And I can’t imagine how proud Hayward must feel to be the one to have finally done it (cause she should be). But the real feat here is not what I made of it – I loved the poem to begin with. The amazing thing for me was that everyone that left that theatre – students who have nothing to do with literature – suddenly aware of a very niche poem, affected by it through Hayward’s stunning adaptation for the stage. Not one person left the BT unimpressed.
Image // Ruth Miller