The Black Staircase - A Ghost Play

Fri 4th – Sun 6th November 2011

reviews

Danielle Masterton

at 01:59 on 5th Nov 2011

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Steeped in mystery and history, the Durham Castle has witnessed nearly 1000 years of history unfolding at its feet. But this weekend, The Black Staircase, a clever take on the modern ghost story, is breathing theatrical life into the walls in carefully crafted promenade style, guiding lucky audience members through the historic galleries and chapels of the Castle.

An unusual piece of theatre for Durham’s less than alternative norms, The Black Staircase obliges the audience to choose their own path through the course of the intertwining plot. We are introduced to the story in the present day. Paul Moss is our able guide, a brother searching for the ghost of his late sister, inspired by numerous ghost sightings in the Castle. ‘If you see a ghost, follow it... fortune favours the bold,’ and so we parted ways from the Great Stairs and from the present, stepping into the private world of Bishop Barrington and his wife Lady Jane.

The Black Staircase was technically very well executed, a complex choreography of ushering audience members and the occasional jog to keep up with the action! Slammed doors echoed perfectly, stairs creaked and the distant screams from other rooms only served to add to the atmosphere. Like an intricate dance, the audience and actors crossed paths at crucial moments, making the play both a communal and very individual experience.

Lady Jane’s path through the play seemed to revolve around the Black Staircase itself, its imposing dark oak, beautifully engraved panels and leaning steps twisting upwards over four flights. Olivia Collins’ tone was truly haunting; her interpretation was brilliant and bone-chilling. Collins interacted aptly with the booming Bishop Barrington (Fergus Leatham), submissive and unsure at the hands of her husband yet unsettlingly aloof. A truly powerful performance. Collins’ convincing fit of hysteria, combined with the utter uncertainty of what was going to happen next and where we would next be led, kept the audience on the metaphorical edge of their seats.

Only at the very end of The Black Staircase do you realise how much you have not seen. In the finale scene, the entire cast enters together in file, uniting pasts and presents in the Great Hall. As all but Paul exit back onto the Black Staircase, it seems that all of the characters are now ghosts of their pasts, destined to forever haunt the corridors of the Castle, now reclaiming another spirit and retreating to the ominous Black Staircase.

Thoroughly intrigued by the morsel of theatre that I had just witnessed, I stayed to see it again. This time following different actors on a parallel plot of ghosts, shrieks and uncertainty. It is 1944 and the Castle has become a convalescent home for soldiers. Blurring the lines between superstition and psychology, this thread of the play questions whether it is the Castle which is haunted or is it rather a more human haunting? Authoritative but warm, Dr Paddock, played by Charlie Walker, cajoles Charles, a WW2 pilot destroyed guilt and haunted by his old friend. Guy Hughes’ trembling stiff upper lip is a moving portrayal of post-war masculinity. Whilst Tash Cowley radiantly interprets the role of Margaret – the audience bears witness to her nightmare, sharing in the darkness of her bedchamber.

The sense of imprisonment, locked doors and heavy stones of the Castle in juxtaposition with the fluid movement of the actors and audience create a unique and captivating piece of promenade theatre. Director Oscar Blustin and Assistant Director Sam Kingston Jones, along with Producer Tom Wynter, have made tremendous use of the wealth of historic architecture inside Castle’s walls. From cold stone chambers to the warm candle-lit underground Norman Chapel, the threads of plot unfold and entangle beneath vaulted ceilings, amongst columns of rippling stone and under the canopy of a towering four poster bed. The Black Staircase promises many surprises, literally around every corner.

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Michelle Newbold

at 09:52 on 5th Nov 2011

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The atmospheric setting of Durham Castle provided the perfect backdrop for ‘The Black Staircase’, directed by Oscar Blustin. Structurally and technically, the play was far-removed from anything I’d ever seen before. This was ‘installation theatre’: no seats, no auditorium, only a handful of actors using the castle itself as their stage. The result was clever and interactive: at times I was mere feet away from the actors, an intimacy which added to the eerie unease of never quite being able to tell which characters were no longer in the world of the living.

On arrival, the small audience gathered in a stone hallway in front of a large wooden door. That this play would be unique in its structure became evident almost immediately. Paul Moss’ convincing portrayal of a grieving Castle student, desperately searching for his ghostly sister, set the tone for the evening to ‘very creepy’. These were his instructions: “if you see a ghost, follow it. Split into small groups, and don’t stay together”. It soon became clear that what awaited us on the other side of the door was not a conventional theatre with seats and a stage, but something very different.

We were first taken onto the black staircase, the castle’s three-centuries-old set of creaky stairs, which would provide the focal point for the evening’s events. Characters wandered in and out, and the audience was immediately split, one half following two maids who disappeared down a long corridor, the other half going into a side room with a doctor and a nurse. The plotline took us all over the castle – a dimly lit lounge; a cold, echoey hallway; we even went outside, where actors Charlie Warner and Kate Hunter were forced to shout over the persistent pattering of the evening rain. But the elements only added to the sense of imminent terror which the pair expertly maintained throughout. Warner’s interpretation of a reluctant critic-turned-believer, and Hunter’s portrayal of a young nurse treading the thin line between jumpiness and hysteria, had me looking over my shoulder the whole time.

An assortment of other characters heightened the tension. Guy Hughes portrayed a traumatised war veteran with harrowing authenticity, a plotline which culminated in an intense suicide-scene in the castle’s dusty chapel. Hughes’ ghostly co-pilot was so skilfully depicted that I was reluctant to get too close! The only disappointment came when my group returned to the staircase to find a cloaked woman sprawled at the foot of the stairs, an event which never quite reconciled itself with the single plotline I had seen. The final scene took place in Castle’s dining hall, where the entire audience was reunited for the first time since the play began for an emotionally-charged reunion. The extremes of human grief were skilfully portrayed by Paul Moss and Christina Ulfsparre, before the audience were led back out into the hallway.

With technical direction from Hannah Gregory, the play’s innovative structure added a sense of realism which proved highly appropriate to the horror genre. Feet away from characters who I couldn’t be sure were still living, my skin tingled and more than one shiver ran up my spine. The play’s stewards also deserve a mention here. Between them they managed to herd the audience into suitably sized groups, adding a slick professionalism to a form of drama which could easily have ended in disaster. The only drawback of the structure was that it left some gaps in my understanding of the plotline, but perhaps this can be viewed as a clever ploy to get audiences to return. Producer Tom Winter told us on our way out that we would have to see the play a total of six times to view all the separate strands. It should be stressed here that audiences wouldn’t be charged more than once for attending. Overall though, it was a great evening. The structure of the play is unique in my experience of theatre-going, and one couldn’t ask for a better setting than Durham Castle to act out such a spooky plotline. The natural sounds of a college on a Friday night only added to the eerie feel of the play – a slamming door, a shout, heavy footsteps upstairs. At times it was difficult to tell whether these sounds were being made by the living, or by the dead.

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