By Dan Bavister
Durham is in many ways a social vortex, a whirling maelstrom of ebullient people, enigmatic surrounds and exciting opportunities, for those willing to grasp them. This is especially the case with culture and the arts – endless theatre companies, enthusiastic directors and talented casts make Durham truly the place to be for a great cultural experience. Symphonies light up the vaulted heights of the Cathedral, renditions of exquisite song fill Castle Great Hall, and there are of course the multiple outstanding theatres, from the Assembly Rooms to the Gala, which provide the prime backdrop to live theatre, from musicals, to sketch shows, to Shakespeare, and beyond. As Palatinate theatre correspondent and the new Indigo Stage Editor, it is my pleasure to bring the celebrated stage(s) of Durham to you in the pages of Palatinate every other week.
The DST (Durham Student Theatre) Freshers Play 2023 is an opportunity for the next generation of theatre stars in Durham to have their first big break, and walk the famed boards at the Assembly Rooms Theatre on the historic Bailey in the physical and emotional heart of Durham. This year the play was Agatha Christie staple, A Murder Is Announced, a wise choice for the wealth of dynamic humour and rich characterisation it clearly brings the newly-assembled troupe of first-year students.
Every member of the cast I have been able to meet speaks with a real and deep enthusiasm. And their clear sense of eagerness says volumes about the whirlwind nature of such a performance – a cast thrown together, very early in their careers, with a bar set so high it’s stratospheric, will naturally possess a sense of jittery anticipation. I ask some of the actors about this. Theo Smith, an enigmatic geographer from Josephine Butler college, says “[live theatre] is exciting, an opportunity to try something new . . . It’s like playing a sport”. Mia Harris Lindop, who studies English Literature at Hild Bede, is franker: “it’s bloody terrifying. I’m always silent beforehand. But the support from the cast makes it all possible”.
I chat to Laurie Stephen Davidson, who studies Anthropology at Hild Bede, about what drew him to get involved with the Freshers Play. He says it’s “the physicality, the playfulness, the channelling of emotions”. I ask if acting helps his mental health, a benefit many actors speak of, and he answers immediately in the affirmative: “yes, of course, you take on something, wrestle with it, and leave it at the stage door when you leave . . . it’s the same when I write poetry; for me, art crystalises meaning”. For Annabel Clancy, who studies English Literature, theatre brings “escapism and creativity . . . [theatre] brings the texts to life, giving you a real insight into staging characters”.
The conversation moves onto the topic of previous experience. Some students come to Durham with a rich back catalogue of drama experience. Indeed, for Laurie, this is certainly not his first foray into live theatre – he has already acted at the National Youth Theatre and the Edinburgh Fringe. For others, they may have undertaken an A-Level or IB Drama qualification, acted in a school production, or sung with their church choir. What is made clear to me though, is that DST judges their applicants on both talent and potential, so cast members from all backgrounds, regardless of experience, can get stuck in with student theatre at Durham.
To finish, I ask the cast about the social aspect of DST, which for many is the highlight of their student theatre journey. The answer is unanimous. “It broadens your social circle” says one cast member, to resounding nods from the others present, while another adds: “the people are nice, so relaxed . . . and you gain this amazing connection with the play, a shared connection.” Evidently, this is an experience these ambitious and driven young actors will not soon forget. And it will be fascinating to see their theatre journey going forwards at Durham, and beyond – truly, all the world’s their stage.
DST provides a wide range of exciting opportunities for students to get involved with live theatre while at university in Durham, from acting to directing and so much more. You can follow them on social media or find them at https://www.durhamstudenttheatre.org/.
Images: Georgia Malkin