A filling or emptying theatre roars with sheer life. The extremes of human life are made flesh on the stage and lived in spirit down in the audience. Yet when the theatre falls desolate, the left behind actors may feel like ghosts. Something of this feeling may be displaced on to those old stories of ghosts who wander around provincial theatres, actors who have remained once their play has ended. When actors are rehearsing, on the other hand, there is so much at stake – the possibility of “dying on stage” – that they may fall mercy to superstition. The true name of the Scottish play may prove terminal to their production. Mirrors on the stage, black cats slinking from the wings, the idle whistling of stage hands – these things can destabilise the mind of the most consummate professional.
A new play from Z Theatre Company, an outfit from Hull, observes the malign influence of superstition over a theatrical rehearsal. “Under the Ladder” has just finished a run at the Spaces on North Bridge. A village “am dram soc,” who are led by a Lynda Snell figure (Ayesha Nightingale), have opted for Hamlet, even if Cinderella would be beyond this lot. The best actor in the cast is told off for portraying Claudius as a “comical old fool.” They all speak pidgin Shakespeare and they have only three weeks to master the script. This production is seemingly doomed from the start, but once somebody has uttered the word “Macbeth,” the disaster appears to escalate. What is actually running amuck, however, is impassioned theatrics.
The cast (ie the real cast) initially appear as cloddish as the actors whom they are playing. It is one of those plays in which the whole performance sounds slightly too quiet, as if it was a television with the volume turned down and nobody has a remote to hand. Yet the story gradually lunges forward in intensity and the acting acquires a corresponding power and volume. Charlotte Handley proves particularly good as the drip of a girl who beefs up to become a convincing Ophelia.
As “Under the Ladder” has now finished, it seems rather foolish to flag up “spoilers,” but just in case you are reading this a hundred years in the future, when the play has been resurrected for whatever planet the Fringe is now on, let us merely say that the ending provides a good sound thrill, like a snort of cold air down your back. “Under the Ladder” has no apparent ambition beyond delivering something like a well-crafted urban myth. The play is quite content with the sparse, generic characters who inhabit such fireside stories. But one should not criticise a play for what it is not. Z Theatre have not blundered across enough black cats to earn a mean review from me.