Bungay boasts several natural blessings when it comes to the arts. The town itself is of storybook prettiness; its Georgian theatre, sensitively restored in recent years, still has some original features excitingly intact from 1828: and Bungay’s ruined castle, meanwhile, dates back to 1173. Once the stronghold of Hugh Bigod, that rebellious Earl eventually had to bribe Henry II not to destroy it as punishment for his treason. Time achieved King Henry’s intention over the centuries; but the Castle’s fairytale compact, roofless structure today, with inner and outer rings of wonderfully thick ruined walls encircling undulating grass walkways and terraces, punctuated here and there with menacing towers and yawning arches, could have been designed for modern immersive theatre, especially in autumnal dusk. No wonder it tempted the team at the Fisher Theatre to venture outdoors. UpShoot Theatre’s joyously dark and comic Halloween production makes the most of this inspirational space to tell the imaginary story of The Curse of the Black Death: a battle of wills between a mysterious nun, Sister Hester (played with gracious poise by Alexandra Barrett) and an unsettling witch Salome (an expressively vibrant Katie-May Gooderham), who both claim to be fighting for the salvation of Bungay, whose castle has been cursed by the plague. It is up to us – the audience – to judge in whom we trust, and whose story we believe; this means writers Benjamin Roper and Laila France must have created two endings, depending on whether the group decide that redemption lies in Hester or Salome, religion or magic, at the end of their fifteen-minute adventure.
Directors Benjamin Roper, Laila France & Darren France marshal a large, confident and competent amateur cast in a 360-degree production which keeps us on the move, heads turning, throughout our encounter. Costumes are Medieval rags or uniforms, and makeup (by the cast themselves) is fabulously undead, with wan cheeks, sunken eyes and remarkably realistic pustules, boils and buboes galore. Before we’ve entered, the Hag at the Gate (Laila France) begs groats and shillings from us in vain, while we are given a beautifully-attuned health and safety briefing in keeping with the rest of the production (those suffering from “pregnancy… anxiety… or loose bowels” being advised to steer clear in deliberately humourous Medieval phrasing which continues throughout). Welcomed by Shadrack the Gatekeeper (an unnervingly vivid Simon Godfrey), we are steadily signposted from one character to the next, each time with a task to achieve, to give or to get something which will help us through our next introduction. Accordingly, Shadrack sends us to the Fortune Teller Athame (charismatically portrayed by Benjamin Roper), who is rightly disgusted with the single groat we offer him in payment; we next encounter Sister Hester, whose idealistic focus on the good implies her morals are reassuringly pure, and hands over her healing leeches; but we are told a different tale by Salome, who encourages us to question everything we’ve been told about the nun and her aims. Our initial decisions shaken, we journey on to meet Lance (a disarmingly cheery, convincing Leon Bedwell), apprentice to the menacing, silent Plague Doctor (Simon Godfrey): Lance is grateful for our leeches, but is doing little earthly good to his long-suffering patients Matthew and Robert (lovely comic turns by Campbell Docherty and Darren France) in the funniest exchange of the piece, powered partly by sarcastic wordplay, often by well-executed slapstick, and above all by Bedwell’s own enviable natural instinct for comic timing. We become steadily more disorientated by our conflicting instructions from all characters, and also by a range of sensory influences: Lance offers us raw onions and exotic herbs, while strange fragrances (and bloodcurdling cries) linger in the air. All actors maintain their focus beautifully while involving the audience in the action; we journey on past ghostly rings of skipping, undead children (Hannah Beale, Rosie Fordham, Hannah Chilver, Fabienne Clarke, Angelica Clarke, Frankie Barlow), bodybags that twitch gleefully as we pass, to the final showdown by the plague pit, where the fate of Bungay at last falls to us. Voting Salome seemed a good decision at the time – but I daresay voting Hester would also have had an exciting outcome.
The Curse of the Black Death is a journey of progressive discovery, in which the nature and extent of our challenge, and the production, is gradually revealed: each time we round a corner, or turn around, there’s something new and unexpected to see. As an original act of site-specific, locally attuned creativity, it could scarcely be bettered. Above all, this production is confident enough to be genuinely funny as well as unnervingly intense, achieving a real Halloween thrill – hopefully without too many nightmares – for children and adults alike.
Reviewed at Bungay Castle on Saturday 28 October 2017