We are celebrating! Our last live performances before lockdown were in winter 2019. But now we are back, and starting our new season with Ghost Stories II, another in the compelling series of storytelling events performed by Artistic Director Richard Spaul.

Richard, you’re marking our return to live performance with two disturbing stories retold in a spooky medieval chapel as the nights get darker. Why this choice?

M.R. James described Ghost Stories as ‘a pleasing terror’ and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Experiencing a ghost story allows us to encounter things that are uncanny, frightening and disturbing – but in an atmosphere where it is safe to do so. 

That’s very important. This has been a very unsettling time for everybody. People may need ‘cheering up’ and will understandably want to have fun, but many people will also want to explore what’s in dark and strange places – but with the safety of knowing it’s theatre.

That’s one of the things that theatre is for – it is sometimes called a ‘rehearsal for life’ – and I have found over the last few years that ghost stories are a wonderful medium for such rehearsal.

Why Storytelling?

You’ve told other tales over the past several years, always to audience acclaim. Why do you think storytelling performances are so popular and compelling?

Storytelling is theatre at its most basic. It certainly is when I do it. It’s really just me and the audience. It’s my voice and words and it’s the audience’s eyes and ears, at very close quarters and in a very direct way. No stage, no props, no barriers. Whether I am performing or attending performances, I really like that approach and I think many people do. It’s easy to imagine that the experience would have been very similar hundreds or even thousands of years ago. 

Plus – after months and months of remote contact and social distancing and masks – I do believe that intimacy, simplicity and raw power will be even more compelling.

A Descent Into Madness

The first of the two stories you’re telling, A Kink in Space Time by Russell Wakefield, is not only about mysterious apparition but also about mental illness. What in the story made you want to use it?

For me, the best ghost stories are not fantasies in which there are strange beings (ghosts) which don’t really exist in real life but which you believe in temporarily in order to enjoy what’s on offer. That seems silly to me. The best ghost stories – which are what I am always searching for – are about reality, psychological and social reality.

As for mental illness, there has always been a very interesting and scary connection between such illness and the paranormal. Is what you’re experiencing really happening or is your mind unhinged by grief or stress or anxiety? Who hasn’t experienced something like that?

This is what A Kink in Space Time is about. A distinguished physicist has been working too hard and has become ill. He’s convalescing. He thinks he’s getting better. But one evening a strange man covered in river slime runs past him. Who is that man? He’s familiar, but why? The scientist can’t stop thinking about this. He must track the man down and find out who he is.

A descent into madness follows which is frightening and compelling but also very moving, and observed with great accuracy and emotional intelligence. It’s a wonderful acting opportunity and I think people will find the tale powerful and memorable.

A Dead Lover

The second story, Bewitched by Edith Wharton, also contains a figure which seems to be an apparition. Again, what drew you to choose this story?

The atmosphere in Bewitched is extraordinary. As in many of Wharton’s stories, the main character is the snow. The tale is set in a bleak landscape of isolated farms in the middle of a harsh winter. Snow has been falling and the world is white and featureless. In this world, without bearings or anchorage, a dreadful story unfolds.

A woman has caught her husband cheating. It’s his former sweetheart – the woman he loved but didn’t marry. Her name is Ora Brand and they meet down by a frozen pond. But it’s not a simple case of adultery, because Ora Brand has been dead for a year. Yet the tale seems to be true – there are footprints of bare feet in the snow.

I’ve told some scary stories in the past, but this is as scary as it gets.

And not only scary, but also psychologically and emotionally powerful. It’s about illicit, spectral love in a bleak, harsh, loveless world. I think it’s amazing stuff from an amazing writer.

One of the things that links these two ghost stories together is the comparative lack of recognition for their two authors. Was this lack of recognition a factor in your choice of tales?

Yes it was. Edith Wharton is a well- known novelist and some of her novels have been filmed in the last 25 years or so. But she is also one of the greatest ghost story writers – and I feel she’s not had the recognition that some frankly less-gifted male writers have received.

And gender may not be a coincidence here! In other solo performances I’ve also fore-grounded the work of another prodigiously-gifted woman writer – Elisabeth Bowen. I do feel strongly about the place of female ghost story writers, and I really want to promote their remarkable work.

Russell Wakefield’s lack of recognition developed differently. In the early 20th Century he was immensely popular, a household name, but then he was completely forgotten. He even burned some of his work because he felt no one was interested in it, and when he died there were no obituaries. Most of his work is now out of print and I have had to search to track it down.

But the search was well worth it. Wakefield’s best work is really compelling and the story I’m telling is, in my opinion, his best one. So this is a re-discovery.

Solo performances – typically lasting over an hour – are a genre you have very much made your own over the past several years. Tell us a little about your experiences.

I love the research involved in preparing a solo performance. Checking out different authors, reading all the stories, choosing which ones will work… That part is very interesting because I’m not just choosing the best tales, I’m choosing the ones that would most benefit from being channelled through a live performer. Fact is, people can read these stories for themselves whenever they want, so there has to be something about the narrator sitting in front of you and talking to you that adds to the experience. I’m constantly looking for that ‘something’ – it’s hard to say what it is but after a while I think one develops a feeling for what will work.

The most obvious challenge in solo performance is learning an hour and a half of words, and of course that takes time. But I like the discipline – and as I gradually learn the text, I also gradually build up the voices and characters and rhythms that I’ll use. It’s very slow and methodical but it suits my way of working.

The final part is actually delivering the performance. As I said before, I like the simplicity and the rawness and the directness of the encounter with the audience. It really is just me and them and I love the challenge and opportunity of that.

Finally Richard, what are the main messages… insights… experiences that you hope audiences will take away from Ghost Stories II?

Enjoyment and excitement obviously. But – especially now, after what we’ve been through – I hope people will value the ‘liveness’ of the performance. To say ‘liveness’ is a bit of a paradox when we’re dealing with ghosts, but the show is not on Zoom, we’re not texting each other, it’s not streamed. It’s really happening now. It’s just us – in real space. This is a great feature of theatre and I think people may appreciate it even more in the coming months.

Ghost Stories II is performed by Richard Spaul on Saturday 23 and Sunday 24 October at 8pm at The Leper Chapel, Barnwell Junction, Newmarket Road, Cambridge CB4 1DH. Tickets £15. Please note that the venue has no toilet facilities. The performance will be fully Covid secure.

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