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…

By Sue Quilliam

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.

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

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