Ghost Stories… mysteries unveiled

By Sue Quilliam

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A dark winter night. An atmospheric medieval chapel. A lone narrator who delivers chilling tales and haunting songs.

When I saw ‘Ghost Stories’ I was left feeling wholly entranced, appropriately unsettled, the memories lingering. Just the effect a good ghost story should have.

I was also left feeling curious. I wanted to know more, and in more depth. Why… what… how? I asked performer-director Richard Spaul to allow me a glimpse into the creative process.

Richard, what inspired you to develop the performance?
Since my teenage years I’ve loved ghost stories; I find them poetic and emotionally powerful as well as uncanny and scary. I wanted to use the stories, mingled with the songs, to create a parallel experience. Basically, I imagine the whole event to be some sort of seance.

The venue is wonderfully spooky. How did you find the chapel?
The Leper Chapel is one of the in situ: regular venues. It has the ambience of a 900 year old building – plus given its history, it’s certain there have been deaths there. It’s an especially wonderful backdrop for this production.

How did you decide which tales to include?
I began with an extended – and very enjoyable – process of reading lots of stories; some I discovered for the first time, others I remembered and tracked down. I finally chose “Miss Mary Pask” by Edith Wharton and “Pink May” by Elizabeth Bowen.

These stories are both extremely good. But more than that – they benefit from being ‘channelled’ by a live performer. I looked at lots of wonderful stories but rejected many because – however wonderful they might be – my performing them wouldn’t have added anything.

One crucial criterion I used is that both tales have very distinct but very unreliable narrators who are powerful conduits for the uncanny events. I hope that gives the audience a strong feeling of not knowing where they stand in relation to what’s happening, a feeling that adds to the effect of ‘haunting’.

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Both stories are set in earlier 20th century. Is that significant?
There was a classic period when many ghost stories were written – from about 1890 through the first decades of the twentieth century. This was an age of huge social disruption, dreadful violence, endless bereavements – resulting in a keen awareness of death and what might lie beyond. I’ve deliberately chosen stories set firmly in this time. “Miss Mary Pask” a few years before World War One, “Pink May” in World War Two.

Is it coincidence that both tales are written by women, and have women as central characters?
I was captivated by Edith Wharton and Elizabeth Bowen – two brilliant and powerful woman authors. As usual, being women, they are not as well known, often not as appreciated as some of their male counterparts.

Both writers have found a remarkable take on the ghost story genre and have used it as a forum for their concerns about women’s issues. Both stories have women as major protagonists and I was struck by their linked theme – a feminist idea really – that a blighted and choked woman’s life, stifled by the convention and powerlessness of the early 20th Century, could result in a ‘haunting’.

Ghost stories often contain an idea of ‘the return of the repressed’, the idea that that which is suppressed will emerge somewhere, somehow. A lot of ghosts are like that and Mary Pask certainly is. In “Pink May”, a part of a woman’s psyche punishes her for – in this case – extra marital sex.

How did you choose the three songs for the performance? In fact, why sing at all?
I have a close relationship with all of the lyrics. Plus, they – and the a cappella style I use – reflect the ghost story era, and seem to express some of the concerns of the stories in condensed form.

As to why sing at all, many singers feel themselves to be ‘channels’ or ‘mediums’. I think it’s a powerful idea that you – the singer – step out of the way and the song goes through you. By beginning the performance with a song, I’m able to get out of the way and let the voices of the lyrics and the text take hold. After that, the singing works by forming a bridge between the tales. Then it draws the experience to a close.

What do you hope we – the audience – gain from Ghost Stories?
I hope you find food for the intellect and the imagination, that you feel the greatness of the writing and that you’re stimulated to read the tales.

But most of all, I hope that the performance has an impact, that it makes you remember after it’s over. Because there have always been ghosts. And probably always will be…

Ghost Stories, is performed by Richard Spaul, Saturday December 10th at 20.00 at the Leper Chapel, Newmarket Road, Cambridge CB4 1DH. Tickets £12 (£10 concessions) available in advance and from 7.30pm at the venue.

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You are advised to wrap up warmly as the venue has no heating.

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What is “un-named”?

Un-named is our latest project. The six cast members have worked together for a year under the guidance of artistic director Bella Stewart. These are some of the performers’ thoughts and feelings about the work.

The cast of in situ:'s un-named

What’s the topic of Un-named?

“We started by broadly looking at the topic of ‘feral children’ – children raised in the wild, such as the Wild Boy of Aveyron. But the exciting thing is how the piece has evolved into something much wider.

We now cover themes such as; ‘abandonment’ and what effect that could have on a child’s development; children raised under unusual circumstances such as in foundling hospitals; language and what it means to be without it; the juxtaposition of two worlds, the ‘wild’ and the ‘civilised’; the implications of ‘feral’, socially and culturally,

Rachel Duthie in in situ:'s un-named

This thematic development has happened through our thoughts, our discussions, our accumulation of understanding and meaning. In particular, at the start of every class we hold a ‘Quaker’ meeting, where we bring ideas, experiences, music, website links, source material from different directions. Then, in the class, we ‘devise’ dramatic pieces, creative responses to what we have heard and learned.

What do you do when you ‘devise’?

“Led by Bella, we take a stimulus – such as reading ‘The Jungle Book’ – and produce solo pieces using objects, voice, movement, or any combination.

Maxine Fay and Rachel Duthie in in situ:'s un-named

We then work with others in the group to create a collective piece. We put ideas into the pot and mix it all together – often not knowing exactly what we’re doing, often laughing – until we see what plops out the other end. Whether that’s good, bad or indifferent. It’s always original.

Cyrus Pundole in in situ:'s un-named

One particular stimulus was a visit from Lydia. Born in the 1930’s, she was given by her mother – who had been abandoned by her partner – to the Foundling Hospital, in Bloomsbury [founded by Thomas Coram in 1739, now The Foundling Museum]. Bloomsbury. Lydia spoke to us very movingly about her experience of coming to terms with being a foundling. We didn’t replicate her story directly, but instead ‘devised’ a scene in response to her emotion and to our own.

What’s it like to develop a theatre piece outdoors?

“Working at Wandlebury is wonderful – energising and creatively stimulating yet utterly relaxing. We work there from Easter onwards as the weather gets warmer – though it would be lovely to work there for the whole year.

in situ: un-named

Wandlebury gives us so much – open spaces, trees, walls and mysterious doors – to bounce off creatively as we develop the performance. The Park looks different each time we visit, and it’s lovely to work in an environment that evolves with the seasons; it expands our entire experience.

We also feel that working outdoors is a completely different experience for the audience. We’re trying to take them inside the mind of a feral human, or a foundling all alone, abandoned; Wandlebury is perfect for creating what that might be like… it’s a wild space with a distinct urban edge.”

Cyrus Pundole in in situ:'s un-named

What was the hardest challenge in the project?

“It was hard to… imagine what it is like to be without language… retrieve for performance elements we formed nearly a year ago… gather in the best bits of what we have done… put together so many diverse elements for the production… listen to some of the very moving stories we were told… do those stories justice.”

Maxine Fay, Silvano Squizatto and Rachel Thilwind in situ:'s un-named

What were the best bits?

“Using a different part of my brain than in other areas of my life… realising how one’s own experience in the early years can have such a dramatic impact on who one is… rehearsing outside… devising… the creative process… Lydia’s story… creating whole group movement pieces in response to Lydia’s story… working with the other performers. Hopefully, the best bit will be actually performing the piece!”

Mat Wollerton in in situ:'s un-named

Why should people come to see Un-named?

Because we’ve taken core ideas, added individual inspiration, brought everything together “in collaboration, and created something that makes you think about the boundaries of tolerance, resilience and the human spirit.”

Rachel Thilwind and Silvano Squizatto in situ: un-named

These were the (lightly edited) words of: Cyrus Pundole, Mat Wollerton, Maxine Fay, Rachael Duthie, Rachel Thilwind, Silvano Squizzato.

Hamlet: SATURDAY SOLD OUT

Interrogation: Hamlet

Saturday night’s performance of Hamlet at St. Andrews Hall, Cambridge is SOLD OUT.

If you want to see this performance, please don’t risk disappointment – book one of the remaining tickets for Thursday or Friday as soon as possible.

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