first night

The Black Staircase

Ben Weaver-Hincks marvels at the courage of cast and audience alike in The Black Staircase

It’s midnight and I’m chasing a screaming woman up a seventeenth-century staircase. My usual Friday night, this is not.

But I suppose none of us are here to experience the quotidian. The Black Staircase is part ghost play, part haunted house tour. At night, in Durham’s historic castle, it is promenade theatre at its most visually spectacular. Developed to celebrate the castle’s 25th anniversary as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, it certainly revels in the uniqueness and beauty of the medieval setting – this is not hard to achieve. As a piece of theatre, however, it faces one or two more challenges.

Initially led through the Great Hall by a team of guides, we soon encounter ‘ghosts’, and have a series of choices about which we follow. There are two basic plots – one set in 1944, the other in 1807 – with each of these splitting further, so the performance has many permutations. The experience is one of both near-total freedom and loss of control: unsettling, but pleasantly so.

To manage and choreograph such an operation must have been a great technical challenge, and it has been accomplished with skill and apparent ease. Groups split and then meet each other in a coordinated manner, whilst maintaining the illusion of spontaneity. However, the performance would have benefited from slightly tighter security, as unwitting intruders occasionally presented a challenge to the suspension of disbelief. Likewise, shouts of “what the –?” from bemused onlookers, themselves no doubt after a somewhat more bacchanalian form of evening entertainment, were distracting though not fatal. After all, we’re still supposed to be in the present day, aren’t we? Are we? I’m not really sure, but there’s no time to think, as I’m running outside after a nurse who thinks she’s seen something paranormal and wants us all to know about it.

While the performance was outwardly and explicitly a ghost play, this element was not essential to the evening’s success and was perhaps slightly redundant. Yes, the play blurred time periods, but the real magic came from one’s own journey into the past, not the journey of those past into the present. The publicity had promised a “terrifying ghost-tour”, which may have been over-egging it a little. By the looks on most people’s faces, I’d say their greatest fear was standing in the wrong place and finding themselves in the middle of the action at an inopportune moment. But as a piece of theatre, it was wonderfully inviting; not terrifying, but immensely enjoyable.

Perhaps this is because the ghosts are not particularly ghost-like. In fact, they seem somehow more corporeal than the awkward, shuffling members of the audience, so that we become the real ghosts. This does of course mean, however, that there is nowhere for them to hide. Observed sometimes from all angles, the brave actors have to maintain convincing character for every second of the performance. By and large, they pull it off, though they achieve this to varying degrees, and Guy Hughes, Tash Cowley and Fergus Leathem seem to be the most comfortable in their roles.

Whist conceptually, the performance appears to take itself quite seriously, there is more than a whiff of the ridiculous here. The framing sections of the play are almost self-consciously contrived, and as we progress through the performance, the plotlines and visual tropes borrow unashamedly from everyone from Henry James to Daphne du Maurier. However, there is little suggestion that such borrowings are intended to be ironic; this is more faithful homage than parody. But where The Black Staircase abides by convention in its genre, it plays tricks with its form. Whilst the ghost story has been largely exhausted in recent history, the unusual presentation brought life to it, and it is indeed refreshing to see site-specific theatre in Durham. Although Castle’s more impressive spaces have often been employed as performance venues, they are rarely more than just a backdrop. Here, they become essential elements of the performance; and, of course, the opportunity to walk around the college’s halls and rooms was perhaps the biggest treat of the night.

Despite some hiccups in the execution, The Black Staircase is undoubtedly a performance worth seeing. It is a fine concept, with an admirable cast, set in the most stunning of venues. And, if you’re lucky, it might just take you out of your comfort zone.

* * * *

Ben Weaver-Hincks

5 November 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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