Saturday, 27 January 2018

Dead Dramaturgy:Daniel Thackeray @ Camden

Scytheplays Ltd presents
The Dead, Live by Daniel Thackeray
Sunday 11th February 3.30pm, The Etcetera Theatre

Manchester-based Scytheplays Ltd, the company previously responsible for fringe theatre genre hits like the stage adaptation of 2000AD’s The Ballad of Halo Jones (“The greatest and most honest interpretation of an Alan Moore comic” – Forbidden Planet) is thrilled to be part of the first-ever London Lovecraft Festival with a one-off performance of The Dead, Live.  In development for ten years and initially developed through the Oldham Coliseum Theatre's New Writing programme, the play is a new and unique take on the theatrical ghost story, and has gained much popular acclaim on its previous appearances at fringe festivals around the country (“Intimate chills for fans of postmodern ghost stories” – Starburst Magazine).

What was the inspiration for this performance?

I’ve always loved ghost stories and films based on ghost stories, and I wanted to add my own.  But I wanted it to be for the theatre, and I wanted it to be powerfully theatrical.  

Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved theatre and the transporting, imaginative quality of it, and I had an inkling that it might be the ideal medium for a tale of supernatural terror.  All theatre has a slightly uncanny quality to it – that sense of being in the same room as, almost able to touch, fictional characters – and I thought if you emphasised this for horrific effect, you could deliver a real thrill for the audience.

Having said that, I started writing the piece a decade ago, and soon stopped – because I saw The Woman in Black!  It’s an obvious reference point when you’re talking about stage ghost stories, but I had just never seen the stage version, although I’d read the book.  The Woman in Black has kind of come to define what the stage ghost story is, and for a while I just couldn’t see how I could do better than that.  

My piece, The Dead, Live, was even structurally kind of similar.  So I gave up on it.  But, after a long time, I realised that my piece actually had the potential to be something quite different, and to be uncanny and frightening in a different way.

The Dead, Live is a modern-day piece about a popular ‘psychic medium’ called Lawrence Dodds (played by the brilliant Howard Whittock). He’s a very modern figure who does public ‘reading’ shows – a little bit Derek Acorah, Colin Fry.  And he’s very much a fake, using plants in the audience to make his psychic abilities look real.  

The play begins as he is training up an actor called Rachael (Carly Tarett) who is going to be a plant in the audience watching his latest show, so we get a big discussion – with some tension, as these are two characters who have never met before and are forced to quickly develop a working relationship - about how the fraudulent psychic’s techniques of misdirection and cold reading work.  And from that point, we go into the live show itself.  And hopefully things don’t develop as expected.

When I was thinking about what may really lie beneath the surface of the fakery and manipulation of the stage psychic, I took inspiration from a number of writers – Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale, Christopher (Scream and Scream Again) Wicking and HP Lovecraft.  The unsettling dread of Lovecraft’s ‘cosmic horror’ was something I felt could really lie beneath the surface of Lawrence’s world.  And so I’m very pleased and thrilled that we we’ll be performing at the first ever London Lovecraft Festival!

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

It absolutely is. In the age of social media, ‘public discussion’ seems in large part about people making snap judgements and attacking each other instantly and with great vitriol.  But performance allows the speaker more time to set out their stall, to work through their ideas, with no less passion and precision.  The discussion happens in the bar afterwards, or on the way home, and it’s possibly a better discussion because good theatre is good art, and therefore a more thoughtful and inspiring way to explore ideas than a soapbox.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I always have been, I can’t really remember how it started.  Possibly a love of Roald Dahl at an early age led to a love of writing, and that led to drama through school.  But over the years I’ve been lucky enough to see and be inspired and moved by many fine productions in the theatre and in film, television and radio, so for a long time I’ve wanted to study those media and make my own contribution to what seems to me to be a great tradition. 

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

This particular show caused a great many interesting conversations in the rehearsal room, between the director, Alex Shepley, myself and the actors.  Without giving too much away, I think the style we’ve tried to go for is a kind of intimate, semi-interactive naturalism. 

Because the main characters in the play are both performers and spend a good chunk of the show ‘in character’, and are at other points required to deal with particularly non-realistic situations, it was a challenge to keep the tone consistent.  It involved breaking the fourth wall – Alex and I agreed that it’s fine to do that, so long as in doing so you are making the drama more real, not less real.  I don’t want to say any more about it really.  Except that I hope we succeeded!

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

Pretty much.  Scytheplays is all about bringing genre to life on stage.  When I say ‘genre’ I mean horror, sci-fi, fantasy.  We either adapt for the stage genre material in those genres, or, less frequently, create original works for the stage that are still identifiably genre.  

The Dead, Live is the latter.  Those are the genres that have always inspired me, and yet they’re rare on stage, possibly because often it takes a kind of verisimilitude to get an audience to an accept a fantastical narrative, and verisimilitude isn’t something you can really do on stage.  

But I think that theatre is perfect for flights of the imagination, as long as you lead the audience in the right way.  I’m very proud that many of our shows, like The Ballad of Halo Jones or a student production of Nigel Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics, have put things on stage that seemed impossible – often in tiny spaces with almost no set!  And in doing so they have transported the audience.  The direct feedback we have received from people who have seen our shows over the years has been really wonderful and it usually comments on that sort of thing.

Having said that, The Dead, Live actually is going for a kind of verisimilitude.  It’s an experiment, but one that has worked well so far, I think.  And we’re always refining and improving what we’re doing.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

The uncanny.  A sense that they’re in the same room as something unearthly.  A suspense that they’re not sure where they’re being led.  And hopefully a sense of having been entertained!

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

Again, it was about whether or not we could break the fourth wall – how far we could go in terms of directly addressing the audience, how soon we could do that, whether it would enhance the atmosphere we’re trying to create, or wreck it.  Despite the talk about naturalism and verisimilitude, this play does fall into the category of supernatural fiction.  If you are dealing with that subject matter, I think there are basically two ways you can go.  You can be all style, and hit the audience over the head with artifice, effects, music and so on to bludgeon them into submitting to the narrative.  That can work wonderfully well – as a fan, for instance, of the Hammer horror films, I have no problem with that.  But the other way you can go is towards minimalism, appealing to the audience’s intelligence and imagination, so that they can be sensitive to that chill insidiously creeping up their spine.  I think we probably lean more towards that.  Or possibly dive!

Partly inspired by stage predecessors such as Stephen Mallatratt's The Woman in Black and by memorably frightening TV events such as The Stone Tape and Ghostwatch, it nevertheless charts an intriguing course of its own, inviting the audience to participate in a live psychic medium show, in which things may not be quite what they seem.

The Dead, Live is a new departure for a creative team who have in the past been responsible for more light-hearted fare. Oldham playwright Daniel Thackeray previously wrote the highly-praised, based-on-truth 1980s-set comedy drama Together in Electric Dreams, in which Sir Clive Sinclair and the future Lord Sugar wrestled over sushi for the future of the British electronics industry ("A lot of laughs and worth a trip down
memory lane" said the Manchester Evening News). Actor Howard Whittock, who plays Lawrence Dodds, the 'psychic' who knows he is really a fake, and director Alex Shepley previously worked together on the surreal comedy sketch show, The Ray Harryhausen Skeleton Orchestra. And actress Carly Tarett, also from Oldham, is well known for her comedy one-woman shows, such as Sinful and Princess Dee, which she has performed locally and internationally to much acclaim.

Although it features light-hearted
moments, The Dead, Live is something altogether more chilling. Whittock and Thackeray are both fans of horror, having hosted The Lee/Cushing Podcast on classic horror films on YouTube for the last year, and their aim here is to bring that feel to the stage.  When the play received a partial preview performance as part of Oldham Library's live@thelibrary programme in February 2017, North West End's reviewer praised it: "Mixing pathos with light humour, and tragedy with the spiritual unknown... this story certainly has, as we say in the profession, legs."  Subsequent performances at the Greater Manchester Fringe in 2017 brought universal acclaim from critics and audiences. 

“More than a match for any stage… a wonderful performance by all involved” said Quays News.  Audience member @deadmanjones commented on Twitter: “…a chilling, sardonic tale that would fit right perfectly into Ghost Stories for Christmas (or inside Inside No 9).”  While the Fictionmaker blog asserted that the play was “Quite terrifying.”

Of the piece’s appearance in the first London Lovecraft Festival, writer Daniel Thackeray says, “It was an honour for our show to be selected to appear in this festival.  To be associated with the name of HP Lovecraft – the man who, in many ways, redefined the territory of literary supernatural horror, and who is owed a great debt by every writer who has worked in that field since – is no small thing, and to have the title of The Dead, Live appear in the festival listings next to monumental titles like At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth is a real thrill.

“I feel like supernatural theatre is on the rise, which wasn’t the case until recently. Apart from the wonderful The Woman in Black, there were so few theatrical ghost stories, despite that intimate sense of the uncanny, that you can only really get in theatre, being so suited to that type of story. The wonderful sense of being in the same room with something otherworldly.  But now, more writers and producers of theatre are emboldened to enter that realm, and often their inspiration is Lovecraft.  Even though our play has no direct connection to Lovecraft’s works, when I was writing the play, his universe of ‘cosmic horror’ was very much in my mind as something that might lurk behind the veneer of the stage ‘psychic’.

“I wanted to capture the unease present in his stories, adding to it the immediacy of theatre, the feel of the uncanny being in the room.  That element is also present, in a different way, in live psychic shows, the kind of thing that Derek Acorah does. It seemed to me that to write something which combined the two could be a real winner. Still, it took a long time to get the balance right – years and years of redrafting and rethinking in fact - but, thanks to a brilliant director and cast, I think we've finally done it. And audiences are in for something really memorable!

“It’s high time there was a fully-fledged Lovecraft Festival.  The organisers are clearly doing it out of love for the material, and they’ve put together a really special programme.”

Show taking place at:

The Etcetera Theatre
Camden, NW1

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