With Covid cases surging to an all-time high and the UK experiencing a third national lockdown, theatre seems to be at breaking point. Throughout this pandemic we have seen countless examples of the arts being underestimated as a second-rate profession, be that through underfunding or advertisement suggesting that arts workers should simply seek alternative forms of employment. The theatre industry, then, has been forced to adapt for its own survival. Transferring to online productions, we have seen countless examples of theatre being brought into the comfort of viewers’ homes, be that from the National Theatre or The Royal Opera House’s ‘The Shows Must Go On’.
The same is true for theatre at Durham. When freshers arrived back in September, they were promised an array of opportunities provided by the vast theatrical scene available to students at the university. With thirty theatre companies and over one hundred shows per year, theatre at Durham had never been greater – until it came to a standstill back in March 2020. To the aghast of actors, directors, designers, audience members and reviewers – theatre looked as though it would never be the same again. And yet, inevitably, it adapted with the times. Seeing a surge of radio dramas, podcasts, and screenings – theatre at Durham continues to evolve into the modern age.
A most recent example is the collaboration between Castle Theatre Company and Green Door Theatre to recreate Mary Shelley’s classic 1818 novel ‘Frankenstein’, adapted to a radio play by student Sophie Wright. Instead of choosing to postpone again and again inevitably into the future like some never-ending staircase, students have accepted the situation for what it is. Whilst they certainly would have wanted to perform this on the stage, their innovation and willingness to adapt is a testament to the creative talent at Durham University.
The hour-long production is available to watch now on YouTube from 29th Janurary – 19th February. Featured alongside the radio drama, viewers will be able to watch a series of original illustrations which come together to form an animation running alongside the dialogue. The tickets are priced from £4-£4.50, and are available for purchase from the online Durham Student Theatre Box Office. Although this is, by no means, an ideal situation, one cannot deny the awe of seeing theatre adapt in new and exciting ways. Seeing ‘Frankenstein’ in a new medium, combining radio drama and animation into one immersive and gothic experience, is a truly exciting enterprise that would not have been possible without the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, the impact of the pandemic on the theatre industry has been brutal. But it has, nevertheless, been most interesting to see the ways in which theatre students innovatively recreate their craft for modern consumption, thereby enabling their industry to survive into the future.
In an interview with executive producer and CTC President Jenny (Evgeniya) Shpeter, she discusses the impact of Covid on theatre at Durham and the ways in which students have adapted: “The uncertainties of Covid and the recurring lockdowns threw the prospects of producing live theatre into complete disarray. We didn’t want to plan a show, only to see our hard work being wasted in case of any future cancellations. However, we couldn’t let theatre just stop. Covid was the drive we needed to create a new form of theatre: ‘Frankenstein’. It’s a unique mix between a radio play and an animation, which I think is a fantastic escape from the every-day, and is a new way for audiences to enjoy one of the world’s most famous horror stories as they’ve never experienced it before.”
In an ideal world, students would have begun by entering the doors of Elvet Riverside with trepidation as they approached a table of casting directors to deliver their audition monologue. From there, the cast would be announced and the team would come together for an exciting table read. Then – rehearsals, intermingled with the occasional social. Finally, you would have the performance and the cast would celebrate their final bow. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has brought such structure into disarray. Anyone who wants to put on a show must rehearse over Zoom. And as any actor knows, it is hard to establish any sort of chemistry or rapport between characters over a buffering video screen. Yet, Durham students continue to make the impossible possible, rising to any challenge with resilience and enthusiasm.
The performers of ‘Frankenstein’ have never met; rehearsals were taken place remotely; creative teams communicated from opposite ends of the country as the UK entered its third national lockdown. And yet, despite the obvious setbacks, a final version of the play exists. Audiences can continue to be entertained from the comforts of their own homes. Whilst COVID-19 has, certainly, divided students all across the country, the wonders of modern-day technology has enabled them to come together. In difficult times such as these, students’ only strength is each other. And when they do come together, the sky is their limit.
By Josh Goodwin
‘Frankenstein’ is available to stream until 19 February 2021.
Tickets are priced from £4 – £4.50 and are available from the online Durham Student Theatre Box Office.
Illustration by Adeline Zhao.