The (Almost) Complete History of Durham

Thu 10th – Fri 11th November 2011

reviews

Michelle Newbold

at 20:56 on 11th Nov 2011

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Conciseness and brevity is not usually to be expected when dealing with history, but ‘The (Almost) Complete History of Durham’ effortlessly combined both of these and, on top of that, added a healthy dose of comedy to Durham’s extensive and colourful past. Written and performed by DST students, the play darted through the last ten centuries of Durham’s history, beginning with William the Conqueror and ending… well, I’ll get to that.

Built in the eleventh century, the cathedral provided the perfect setting in which to act out the history that grew around it. The Galilee Chapel oozes history: intricately carved stone arches, high glass windows, and of course, the final resting place of the Venerable Saint Bede. But last night, the usually tranquil chapel was filled with all the bright lights, sound and energy of the theatre. And what better audience member than Bede himself, the father of all English history?

Skilfully written and professionally put together, ‘The (Almost) Complete History of Durham’ was as entertaining as it was informative. Highlights included Sarah Peters’ enthusiastic portrayal of a mythical witch, Sam Kingston-Jones’ convincing depiction of a defeated Scottish king, and of course, Paul Moss’ brilliantly funny fluorescent-green lycra worm. (You’ll have to go and see it to know what I mean!) Prop use was also ingenious: crowns, green tights, photos and university gowns were just some of the items used to dramatise Durham’s history, and all this chaos was smoothed out by a washing-line, complete with clothes-pegs, which cleverly and gradually strung together the events acted out before it. Audience participation added a further dimension, as spectators were given pictures, props, and even lines throughout the evening, creating the feeling that we were all involved in Durham’s history.

The best bit however, (aside from the fluorescent worm), was the truly heart-warming final scene. The full cast gathered together to explain why their history of Durham was only almost complete; their title, they explained, reflected the fact that Durham’s history is ever evolving, growing and expanding. “On Friday the 11th of November”, we were told, “you all came to see this production, and now that’s part of Durham’s history too. And who knows what will happen here tomorrow”. A history of Durham, then, can only ever be almost complete.

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Julia Chapman

at 10:27 on 12th Nov 2011

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Durham has a lot of history – something I already knew. That its abundant history could be successfully converted into a forty-five minute interactive meta-theatrical comedy was something I was only convinced of at The (Almost) Complete History of Durham.

The (Almost) Complete History of Durham was set in the wonderfully atmospheric Galilee Chapel (or Lady Chapel) of Durham Cathedral. It began with its performers emerging from incognito positions in the audience to explain and occasionally act out selected moments in Durham’s history. All of this took place in under forty-five minutes. The actors were playing themselves as they went about creating the piece, squabbling over which bits to cut and who would have the most lines as they called upon audience members to help them convey the highlights of Durham’s illustrious past.

This touch of meta-theatre could often be hilarious but at other times was overstated to the point of being artificial. However, the cast’s interaction with the audience was very amusing. Upon entering the cathedral many audience members were presented with photos of buildings or people that were significant to the storyline. When the subject of their picture was mentioned, they would then be asked to stand up, repeat a line of the story, or take a turn around the room with one of the actors.

A photographic timeline of Durham’s history was strung up on a clothesline as the performers frantically pinned up each fragment of the story they had just covered. Some centuries were summed up in as little as a sentence. Others had events fictionally elaborated, which were particular highlights of the show. The best of these was the few lines exchanged between Paul Moss and Joe Leather acting as Geordie mothers reluctant to allow men involved in the university near their daughters.

Cramming the thousand odd years of Durham’s history into such a short production naturally results in some of the rapid fire historical points being lost to the comedy of the show. That isn’t to say that the educational aspect was wanting. On the contrary, the balance between history and comedy was perfect. The important stories were handled with extra care and resonated because of the unusual approach to them. I will not, for instance, quickly forget the story of the green worm.

The (Almost) Complete History of Durham was a wonderful example of how the dramatic arts can be applied to make other disciplines relevant and interesting to those who may know little about them. Its innovative approach to history enabled the extensive use of comedy in relation to serious subject matter. Well, perhaps not such serious subject matter, considering that Durham’s history all started with a cow.

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