first night

Nocturne: A Ghost Story

Roberta Gall channels her inner Casper to review Donnchadh O'Connail's Nocturne: A Ghost Story

Nocturne: A Ghost Story by Durham’s own Donnchadh O’Connail opened well. The directors' decision to seat the intentionally small audience onstage was arresting, and the live Baroque duet which accompanied the audience’s arrival was sinister yet tasteful, and suggested that the performance to follow would similarly avoid the tackiness of ‘spooky’ effects. The silence and near total darkness with which the play proper began were sustained to great effect and worked the audience into a state of feverish nervous tension. We were thrilled, and anticipated an enjoyable excursion into the realm of ghosts.


Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that the initial sophistication was to be short-lived, and it was not long before every cliché and overused convention of the Gothic genre had been marched onto the stage. An innocent young girl far away from home, a taciturn butler with a limp, an austere and unreadable host and servants who “offer no explanation” in a house purportedly haunted by a deceased wife, complete with an unopened door, unearthly music, disembodied footsteps and mysterious wailing, and everything recorded in the form of a diary: these formulae were presented without the passion of Jane Eyre, the psychological intensity of The Turn of the Screw or the originality of any other work which has made use of them, and had as much the appearance of lifelessness in performance as they do on paper. Even the use of silence and darkness, at first so chilling, quickly became tiresome, and the music of the opening was replaced by a predictably discordant representation of ghostliness.


The actors showed somewhat wasted potential, and Christina Ulfsparre in particular, as Charlotte Greene, seemed capable of greater things. Her delivery was well-paced, clear and unlaboured, and she showed herself able to pull off narration, discourse, light comedy, hysteria and a very elegant faint. That her character is bland and inconsistent is not Ulfsparre’s fault. Similarly, it is not difficult to blame Seb Gollins for His Lordship’s failure to fulfil the enigmatic and suspicious role with which he is credited on the script, though Gollins and the other two actors, George Haynes and Dom Riley, showed less promise than their leading lady.


Altogether, the best is made of the materials available. Small details (His Lordship’s use of a biro, for instance) are easily forgiven on account of the play’s being performed for no charge, and the promise of donations to Save the Children. Likewise, moments of awkward blocking were justified by the audience’s proximity to the performers, and the soft speech of His Lordship, barely audible at times over the thunderstorm, narrowly escaped being accused of poor balance because it forced us to concentrate and served as an intensifier of an already close and personal situation. The tedium which was substituted for tension was mercifully eased by the odd moment of albeit predictable humour; the cast seemed to grasp at these glimpses of comedy as though conscious of the boredom of their observers.


The play is also bolstered to a small extent by its subtitle, A Ghost Story, which suggests a certain self-awareness belied by the script. This prompts several questions: is the whole thing tongue-in-cheek? Is it a critique of Victorian sensationalism, or a refined parody of the Gothic in the manner of Northanger Abbey? Unluckily for O’Connail, however, a successful parody involves more than mere mimicry. Whatever his intention, he succeeds only in bemusing his audience. Though there is little wrong with the writing itself, which achieves an effortlessness of style which many period dramas lack and is almost consistent in its use of suitable language, the content is so weak that what was supposed to be a dramatic ending had the unfortunate appearance of hesitancy.


Nocturne is redeemed somewhat by its minimal but intimate set, its initial sophistication and the personal charm which is provided almost entirely by Ulfsparre. As an audience member, I felt patronised by the twee arrangement of the story which left nothing to the imagination, was disappointed that there was no occasion to scream, and was left with the empty feeling that some considerable potential had not been put to its best use; however, the cast and director deserve praise for their hard work for a good cause.

19 June 2011

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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