By Dan Bavister
As a first-year undergraduate at Durham, there is a wealth of extracurricular opportunities to get involved with – whether physical, intellectual or creative. And one dynamic and often overlooked avenue that provides a real range of exciting prospects is student theatre.
At the forefront of discovering this are first-year students Henry Skinner and Ollie Cochran who are, respectively, the Director and Assistant Director of the DST (Durham Student Theatre) Freshers Play 2023, which this year is Agatha Christie staple, A Murder Is Announced. Skinner studies English Literature at Hatfield College, while Cochran is at St John’s studying Spanish and Italian. Both have a clear love for student theatre. They speak with real hunger about drama and the arts, with an evident wisdom beyond their years.
For Skinner, the Freshers Play is his first job directing – one can only wonder how exciting this unique opportunity must be. Indeed, his clear sense of enthusiasm speaks volumes about the whirlwind of emotions any directorial debut will naturally bring a cast and its crew.
While for Cochran, directing brings a new side to his acting, which is his primary passion. Directing “inspires” his acting technique, bringing “a much better appreciation of the text”. Cochran also details how the collaborative nature of rehearsals is especially impactful, sparking fresh ideas and insight.
Sexuality plays a strong role within this production. Cochran speaks of their “camp, over the top” characters and when I asked Skinner to sum up the play in a few words he answered succinctly and immediately with “campness, queerness, flamboyant, exaggerated”. He says “I wanted to take the comedy within this script and elevate it to the nth degree – ludicrously camp, exceedingly flamboyant, colourful and garish, a feast for the senses”. He promises that “extravagant entrances and excessive sound effects [will] electrify the stage”. It certainly sounds like it will be a characterful and rich performance.
At one point the discussion moves to the topic of whether the arts can affect social and political change. Skinner answers in the affirmative: “100%” he declares with a deep and instant confidence, “it can [achieve change] . . . it allows you to see things from an emotional rather than a strictly logical perspective”. But he adds, that the main aim of this production is not to turn heads, but rather to entertain and bring out the audience’s laughter: “while I adore theatre for its power to share lived experiences and spark discourse, with this play my focus has solely been to display drama’s ability to entertain”.
Evidently, there remains a wealth of talent and ambition at DST with this new cohort of freshers. Indeed, one can only have the greatest sense of hope and optimism that their performance is a success.
The DST Freshers Play 2023, A Murder Is Announced, runs at the Assembly Rooms Theatre on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th of November.
Image credit: Durham Student Theatre