Beasts and Super-Beasts is the fourth of in situ: director Richard Spaul’s series of solo storytelling performances. Here he talks about the background to the work.
Richard, what’s the motivation for your storytelling series?
The genre I’ve been working on is ghost story, horror story, the uncanny. These tales by Saki are not strictly speaking ghost stories, but they certainly do explore the world of the macabre and the unsettling.
When I was a teenager, I read loads of such stuff and have always loved it, as many people do. So for me it’s a wonderful area to explore.
I also want to open up a new area of theatre practice. These tales are not written as plays, and so theatre practitioners would not immediately think of performing them.
And if the stories are performed, they usually become adaptations – in other words the work is turned into a little play of some kind, which I don’t think is a particularly powerful idea.
My approach is to use the words of the writer directly, rather than in an adapted form.
The theatricality comes not from enacting the story but by the impact of the actor’s voice and presence. In fact, I always hope that my solo storytelling has something of the power of a séance or a visit to a haunted house.
The Author: Saki
In this production, you give us three stories by Saki. Why that particular author?
Saki is a fascinating and brilliant writer, perhaps one of the greatest of the early 20th century, one who encapsulates the strange paradoxes of the pre-World War I lives of the leisured classes in Britain.
Saki started by creating witty, epigrammatic stuff, similar to the writing of Oscar Wilde or P.G.Wodehouse. But then in his mature work, a darker side emerged. The brittle world of wealthy socialites is interrupted either by an eruption of extreme violence, or by an eruption of the supernatural, or by both. Saki’s mother was fatally wounded when trampled by a cow in India and that evidently haunts him; there are very few garden parties in Saki’s work that don’t feature an escaped wolf or a marauding pig.
I find it uniquely compelling to find supernatural themes – reincarnation, werewolves, pagan gods – right at the heart of the depiction of the most conservative British society, the very place where one felt safe, where people went out of their way to ward off unsettling stuff.
In fact, this intrusion of the ‘unsettling’ into the ‘safe’ is exactly what happened in reality to society during World War I. Young men went straight from champagne and cocktails on the Cam to death and horror on the Somme. Saki too – he was killed in 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.
The title of the production suggests that the stories are linked by a ‘Beasts’ theme. Can you say more about that?
Beasts and Super-Beasts is the title of one of Saki’s collections, and Beasts is indeed the theme of this production. A dreadful Sloane believes she will be reincarnated as an otter – an absurd pretension, except that to her best friend’s horror that does seem to be what actually happens. The Hounds of Fate has the grim inevitability that its title suggests. And Sredni Vashtar is the name given by a sick boy to his pet polecat, whom he worships as a god. So it’s beasts all the way down the line.
Your storytelling performances usually include songs. Does Beasts and Super-Beasts?
Yes indeed. Throughout this series of solo performances, I’ve included singing hand-in-glove with storytelling. I really like the connections between song and speech and the way the human voice moves from one to another. A song is a means of moving into another world or zone, and that reflects one theme of the whole storytelling series – that there are other worlds beyond the one we normally experience.
The production lasts nearly an hour and a half. You must do a great deal of memorising beforehand and carry a great deal of responsibility during the performance.
Yes, I have to learn a very large amount of text, know it inside out and hopefully understand its rhythms, its nuances and all its many voices. That’s one aspect which I hope makes it well worth an audience’s while to witness the performance rather than to simply read the original story.
Certainly I feel a great responsibility to offer something memorable and powerful; when I get somewhere near achieving that, I find the experience hugely rewarding.
And while I think 90% of the credit has obviously got to go to the great Saki, I think I can claim 10% of it. Can’t I?
A Traumatised Society
Finally, what do you hope that we, the audience, gain from the production?
I’m hoping the audience gains an experience of a uniquely talented writer; profoundly haunting, ambiguous, powerful stories; writing of extraordinary economy and clarity. I’m also offering an experience of the range and variety of the human voice – speaking and singing – which can not only create feeling, atmosphere and character, but also express the music and rhythms of the writing.
In addition, while Saki’s work is often extremely funny and entertaining, it also hauntingly and usefully reminds us of the presence of Trauma. Life is just not safe, even for individuals protected by class money and tradition. However protected you feel, you can still get trampled to death by a mad cow or savaged by a ferret.
This is Saki’s unique talent – to powerfully evoke a traumatised society, albeit one of over a century ago. And is it any different today? I’m not sure it is. That’s why Beasts and Super-Beasts gives the audience a great deal to take away and think about.