DUCT presents a double-bill of student-written adaptations of classical plays! Writer-director Esalan Gates discusses the process of creating ‘The Lovers’, while writers Imogen Usherwood and Laura Wildgoose and director Lauren Brewer consider the influences behind ‘Everyman’. 

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a magical romp through a forest. ‘The Lovers’ asks whether it is quite so comedic when the trappings of fairies and mechanicals fall away, leaving us with a broken man begging us for answers. We must face the fact that we can give him none.

‘Everyman’ both isolates us and brings us together as we follow one man’s journey to the afterlife. Filled with more questions than answers, we confront our own mortality in Everyman’s journey to discover what it is that makes us human.

TW // Sexism // Implied threat of sexual assault // Descriptions of violence

The Lovers in rehearsal. Image Credit: Eliza Stammers and DUCT. 

The Lovers: Director/Writer’s Note: 

I wrote ‘The Lovers’ in November 2020; the same week as the harrowing US election, while I was directing and editing DUCT’s Classical Acting Showcase. When I read it back now, not only do I cringe at the excessive stage directions, but the frantic anxiety that runs throughout the play is more revealing of that time than I realised.

It is disarming to go back to something you wrote when the state of the world was so different to how it feels now. While we could have applied for a social-distancing exemption (not an option in November), I decided to use my original idea of exploring what happens onstage when four people cannot move within two metres of one another. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is one of Shakespeare’s most sensual plays, and the relationship between the lovers in the original feels outright reliant on their emotional and physical connections with each other. It turns out that when touching one another has not been normalised in the stage space, Demetrius and Lysander’s drugged state becomes doubly threatening: we do not know what they are capable of.

Helena and Hermia’s friendship is an aspect of the original that I wanted to extrapolate and build upon; while Lysander and Demetrius are clear rivals, the women have a stronger emotional connection than any other relationship in the play. There is something heart-breaking about the moments when Helena and Hermia ought to hug and comfort to one another. It taps into a core feeling of loss and grief that marks the time we are living in and I hope resonates with other people too.

Bizarrely, it also turns out that this play is funnier than I realised, and it has been wonderful to watch it become realised by such a talented cast. Creating theatre during a pandemic is emotionally exhausting, as the stress of Covid-19 adds barbs to the usual anxiety around putting on a show. I am so grateful to the cast and crew who have stayed with this play through its many transformations, and I feel very lucky to be able to put this on in the Assembly Rooms Theatre as my last DST show.

By Esalan Gates. 

The Lovers in rehearsal. Image Credit: Eliza Stammers and DUCT. 

Everyman: Writers’ note: 

Way back in Michaelmas Term 2018, we first met during a tutorial for the ‘Introduction to Drama’ module on the English course. The module was designed to cover several centuries of theatre up to the present day, and the first tutorial was on a late medieval morality play called Everyman. We have since discussed that class and learnt that we were actually quite scared of each other at the time, which is very funny now (we’ve since become college married). It feels fitting that, nearly three years later, we’re finishing our undergraduate degrees where we started – by working on Everyman together.

The play is still on the first-year course, and it is the place where most of Durham’s English cohort come across Everyman for the first time. It is pretty short – no more than thirty pages – with a strong Catholic ethos and dozens of characters representing abstract concepts like ‘good deeds’, ‘beauty’ and ‘discretion’. Essentially, it tells the story of a sinner who is called by God to his death, and confronts several people, places and things in his life before he absolves himself of sin through prayer and confession. As you can imagine, it does not naturally lend itself to modern adaptation, especially for a student audience.

Our first question, then, was what does today’s Everyman look like? He is less religious, for one, and so we totally reworked some sections of the play, including a long passage about priests, which did not feel as relevant as it might have in the Middle Ages. We also felt that putting God on stage may not sit right with today’s audiences. Everyman’s concerns in our version are generally more relatable for a modern viewer, and he isn’t the absolute sinner of the original script – he is, quite literally we hope, an everyman, whose crimes are no greater than those of an average person.

Our next challenge was a product of Covid-19: the size of the Assembly Rooms’ stage means that productions are confined to just four socially-distanced actors, rather than the fifteen or so in the original play. We decided on a system of multi-roles, in which every actor except Everyman plays at least two characters, as a way to overcome this. As the play focuses so much on speech over action, adapting Everyman in the time of corona has its advantages: we could focus on playing with the language itself and getting to know the characters, whose voices lack any real distinction in late-1400s English. The mixture of script and poetry we used in our Everyman attests to this aim – where the characters speak verse monologues during moments of thoughtfulness, they communicate with acerbic prose dialogue as conflicts arise between them.

Although DST only returned to in-person rehearsals fairly recently, it has been a pleasure to watch this production develop from our very earliest meetings, to auditions, run-throughs and finally, a live show. Lauren has been such an attentive and thoughtful director, and the cast has brought energy and life to a whole set of colourful and quirky characters. It has been a pleasure to get involved here and there. For example, through applying colour theory in the show: since the play is so abstract and imagistic, we wanted the costuming to reflect this, both drawing continuities and defining each character for the actors. Fellowship and Good Deeds are in yellow, because yellow indicates both cowardice (Fellowship) and optimsm (Good Deeds). We’d like to thank Lauren and the team for being so attentive to these ideas, and responding to our script with so much creativity. They have staged our script in ways that never even occurred to us, with Everyman’s belongings scattered onstage, keeping the props secure and creating an eclectic, delightful aesthetic.

It feels like a long time ago since we began this project – numerous lockdowns have been imposed and lifted in that time – but the fact that live theatre has made its return to Durham at long last is still so exciting. For Everyman to sit alongside Esalan’s brilliant play, The Lovers, is a particularly special moment, as two shows that were due to be performed back in Epiphany Term finally make an appearance. We’re certainly looking forward to seeing it onstage and hope that you are too.

By Imogen Usherwood and Laura Wildgoose. 

Everyman in rehearsal. Image credit: Lauren Brewer and DUCT. 

Everyman: Director’s Note. 

Directing a show about the universality of death has felt particularly poignant within the context of 2021. In a year where so many have lost so much- be it graduations or other key life moments, personal freedoms or even people- a production of ‘Everyman’ had the potential to be yet another reminder of missed opportunities. However, working with this cast and crew- albeit from the safe distance of 2 metres and without any physical contact- has proven quite the opposite.

Imogen and Laura’s beautiful writing has lifted this production from its roots as a medieval morality play to a modern yet timeless adaptation – we are all so grateful to them for letting us bring their words to life. In each of the caricatures Everyman meets along the way: Fellowship, Kindred, Goods, Strength, Beauty, Good Deeds and, perhaps most importantly, Death, there is a sense of familiarity. As Everyman comes to represent us all, grappling with concepts of life and death and our meaning and value within both, the play’s original didactic purpose finds both a new lease of life (pardon the pun) and a startling relevance.

I personally think it’s best summed up in the words of my Dad, who almost daily reminds me to ‘control the controllables’. This year, to be quite frank, has been bizarre, testing us all in previously unimaginable ways. As Everyman learns, we will all ultimately be judged not by our possessions, our appearances or anything else, but by our ‘Good Deeds’ and actions, taking the hand we are dealt and playing it to the best of our ability. This cast and crew have paid full heed to that message, taking each challenge thrown their way and rising above it; I am so lucky to have gotten the chance to work with them all. The true star of this show, however, is DUCT, who despite the obvious obstacles of this year have produced incredible opportunities in theatre and some (I promise I’m not biased) genuinely exceptional work. I am so proud to be a part of this company, and for anyone who’s been involved in anything we’ve done this year, this one’s for you!

By Lauren Brewer. 

Poster credit: Becky Latcham and DUCT. 

A Night of Classical Theatre is performed at the Assembly Rooms Theatre on 13th June. 

Everyman in rehearsal. Image credit: Lauren Brewer and DUCT.