first night

Durham Drama Festival 2013 - Day 1 - Site Specific Night

Hatfield's Birley Room, Castle's Norman Chapel and the World Heritage Centre play host to DDF 2013's opening night - Felix Stevenson investigates ...

So the Durham Drama Festival has officially begun. The ‘Site-Specific Night’ was chosen to start the festival’s proceedings, and what a decision it was. Three performances. Three venues. And not a Proscenium arch in sight. The ‘Site-Specific Night’ is artistically my favourite event of the Durham Student Theatre calendar year. Directors have the opportunity not only to showcase new writing, but also choose a venue that will correspond with the message, narrative and themes that the given script presents. It is a time where risks can be taken, performances finessed, and if the venue allows, audiences are dared to dream.

A Hundred Minus One Day by Idgie Beau
It therefore seems fitting to start with A Hundred Minus One Day. Whether it was deliberate or not, setting the play in Hatfield’s Birley Room was a stroke of artistic genius. The building itself serves two purposes on a daily basis.  The ground floor functions as office space ensuring the college remains up to date on current issues. The rest of the building, on the other hand, is made up of bedrooms in which tired students will be found, more often then not, dreaming of bygone days. The building therefore represents the theme that runs at the very heart of Idgie Beau’s delightful script, the dichotomy between past ‘self’ and present ‘self’ - sociologist Anthony Giddens would have been proud. However, one did not have to understand the contextual significance of the performance to grasp such notions. This was due mainly to arguably one of the finest female partnerships seen on a DST ‘stage’ this year. Steffi Walker playing Jen, a terminally ill ‘grown up’ girl, and Idgie Beau playing Daphne, Jen’s imaginary friend, were at the top of their games. Both managed to pull off the conversational script with apparent ease, giving the words a natural feel that was so important when tackling the uncomfortable issues of death and memory. As they played, argued, and laughed with each other one could not help but grin with that knowing smile, for we all have memories of when our imaginations have run wild, suspending reality and thus bringing an air of surreality to the world around us. Tom Eklid’s father figure provided the mentioned ‘office space’ to the production, which he did so admirably if a little nervously. A Hundred Minus One Day is a strong piece of theatre. It has been well directed by Steph Taylor and leaves the audience understanding that perhaps - contrary to the claims of Jen - we don’t really need to grow up after all.
Stages by Rowan Williams-Fletcher
Sometimes however, the notion of growing up is not always a choice we are allowed to make, as discovered in Rowan Williams-Fletcher’s Stages. On the back of the tragic suicide of their mother, a group of siblings look to alternative means to get over the ordeal. While watching this production, in the World Heritage Centre, I could not help but feel reminded of Hercules’ Second Labour: the Lemean Hydra. The myth goes that as Hercules cut off a head of the Hydra two more would grow in it’s place. It appeared that every time Stages attempted to uncover and narratively make sense of one theme, at least two more would present themselves to the siblings. Lemony Snicket would have been proud, for unfortunate they were. By the end of the ordeal, themes concerning death, sex, homosexuality, grief, secrets, binge –drinking, self harming, depression, and many more had been thrust upon our characters in such a hurried way that it was at times hard to make sense of exactly who was crying and for what reason. That isn’t to say that such notions do not deserve to be theatrically explored. Quite the contrary. Durham Student Theatre is in need of some story telling that is as brave as this. That being said, to exhibit only a few of these themes would have provided enough material, narratively, to prevent the slight feeling of un-satisfaction. It is therefore to the testament of the actors that amongst the thematic scatter shot there were some undeniably moving moments. Rowan Williams-Fletcher, despite last minute replacing the original actress in the part of Danny due to illness, was hugely impressive as an unpredictably explosive teenager. While Kirsten Lees (Megan) and Ellen Milton (Frankie) both at times seemed to lack a little spark in their turbulent relationship, they still managed to create moments of heartfelt tenderness. As did Russell Park’s portrayal of Joshy who provided a comical anchoring that was so desperately needed at times. However, while Hercules had a full day to slay Eurystheus’s monster, our unfortunate siblings had the best part of an hour. It was no contest. Stages requires some thematic editing before it must be staged again.
The Heaps by Joe Skelton
It was therefore left to The Heaps to complete our theatrical triplet. The Norman Chapel was chosen as the venue, and with it came the usual conundrum. Has this performance space been a gift or a curse to Durham’s theatre scene? With six large stone pillars dominating the atmospherically reverent room it is nearly impossible to perform a piece of drama without consistently encountering the issue of spoiled sight lines. The Heaps was no different. And yet I remain undecided thanks to the exquisite nature of Joe Skelton’s tantalising tale. As a gang of children scavenge amongst the rubbish of a slum, searching for an object to trade, they must come to terms with the introduction of a new potential member, Blanky (Hebe Beardsall). With throwbacks to William Goldings’s Lord of the Flies, The Heaps raises the issue of the loss of innocence in a very dark and unsettling way, thanks to a highly intelligent script. The manner in which the gang erupted into ritual chants between trades confirmed the savage nature of the children. Although it was difficult at times to distinguish whether Hebe Beardsall’s Blanky was representing law amongst this anarchic group, the relationships were certainly palpable, particularly her childish romance with Tim Blore’s energetic Kaleep. There was one performance, however, that was by far and away the most realised, and seemed precisely to encapsulate the sinister themes rooted at the heart of Skelton’s story, and it was that of Ruby Lawrence’s Three. It was a terrific display of a gang leader’s impulses working against the more reasoned attitudes of the peers around her - namely Bokie (Jenny Hobbiss) and Speef (Will Hockedy). While the narrative hones in on the finding of a ‘precious’ flower, ‘Gollum-like’ yearnings are evoked as members of the ensemble crave for ownership. It was both humorous and fairly unsettling as Hobbiss’s Bokie was even willing to trade her cushion for a “sniff” and reminiscent of the juxtapositional manner of the scripted themes. Performed amongst heaps of rubbish, admirably sourced by producer Hannah Louise Samano, this was a terrific piece of drama and a wonderful finish to a pleasing first day of DDF 2013. I cannot recommend attending the festival enough. For as William Golding coincidently once said, “Art is partly communication but only partly. The rest is discovery.”

Felix Stevenson

21 February 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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