Go towards the Clear White Light…
Nervous young woman, first night at work, not at all sure of her territory – this might be a promising start for a story of any style. Add an old, dark house, mental states so extreme that they tip over into madness, a sense of progressively eroding decay plus a thread of the superstitious, supernatural and downright spooky and you’ve definitely translated the bare bones of the situation into the stuff of which Gothic novels are made. Live Theatre’s new in-house, Tyneside-bred production ‘Clear White Light’, however, manages to use these familiar tropes not just to create an atmosphere of entropy and neglect as things fall apart and the shadows encroach, but to explore a layer-cake of themes connected at different levels and interwoven through the immediacy of a local setting, a contemporary crisis and a familiar body of popular music.
Playwright Paul Sirett’s drama uses the songs of Alan Hull (1945 – 1995), front man of Lindisfarne, to bring together such apparently disparate themes as St. Nicholas Psychiatric Hospital in Gosforth, the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and the current threat to an under-funded National Health Service. I was lucky enough to get the inside story at a meeting with the play’s director, Joe Douglas (new Artistic Director at Live, fresh from co-ordinating an equally local-led theatre at Dundee), and Musical Director and performer Ray Laidlaw. Drummer for various incarnations of hugely influential Tyneside group Lindisfarne, Ray has also found himself in the role of unofficial archivist of the band’s long and complex history. At every performance Ray and fellow member Billy Mitchell will be playing Alan Hull classics such as ‘Winter Song’ and ‘Lady Eleanor’, though the play’s title ‘Clear White Light’ comes from a poem that Hull didn’t initially see as a song. Ray explains that back in the 1960s, before the foundation of the band, Hull worked as a nurse at St. Nicholas Hospital, a personally intense period which confirmed his awareness that to be sane is simply to occupy a particular position on the spectrum of madness – or possibly vice versa. At the same time Hull had discovered the work of Edgar Allen Poe and was composing lyrics under the spell of the American author’s poetic and Gothically charged style, often taking his guitar into work with him. Poe’s classic 1839 tale ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ emerges as a narrative check-point for ‘Clear White Light’, with its story of a grand mansion inhabited by the last remnants of an ancient family weakened and corrupted by the inheritance of a family curse in the form of painful hypersensitivity and a nasty tendency towards catalepsy. All energy sapped, the House of Usher literally falls in upon itself and sinks beneath the waters. Er… National Health Service metaphor, anyone? We still inherit curses, and seem unable to muster the energy or organisation to set things onto a healthier footing. Seventy years of wonderful free health treatment should be (and is) something to celebrate, but the clouds are looming and (as on the play’s eye-catchingly doom-ridden publicity) there’s a storm brewing and lightning in the atmosphere.
Typical of Live’s practice when it comes to the development of its plays, this one has been a long time brewing and has evolved to suit both location and moment, with input from all involved in the rehearsal process shaping its final form. Max Roberts, the company’s Emeritus Director and dramaturge for ‘Clear White Light’ stressed the necessary element of time in getting things right: “This play has been in development for a number of years, as I have worked with Ray to find the right story to bring the life and music of Lindisfarne’s Alan Hull to the stage. Working with Olivier Award nominated writer Paul Sirett enabled us to combine the elements into a play that has drama, suspense and of course the fabulous music of Lindisfarne which we hope will be appreciated by those that already love their music and by a whole new generation.”
The cast includes some new faces, though mostly seasoned with a good dash of Live Theatre experience, plus two of Tyneside’s best-loved performers working together again after appearing in Sting’s ‘The Last Ship’ at Northern Stage, not to mention Live’s tour of Lee Hall’s legendary ‘Cooking with Elvis’. Joe Caffrey’s impressive CV includes everything from Shakespeare to ‘Byker Grove’, with Live’s ‘The Pitmen Painters’ tour a memorable highlight. Charlie Hardwick, probably best known for her 11 year stint as Val Pollard in ‘Emmerdale’, remains one of the north-east’s most engaging and versatile stage performers, once seen, never forgotten and typifying a rare capacity for dramatic integrity.
I was sold at the description “Gothic”, I must admit, but everything I hear about this drama makes it sound more idiosyncratic and flavoursome. And of course, while I’m at Live discussing the play I can’t avoid picking up some vintage Lindisfarne snippets. Did you know that some of the lyrics to ‘Fog on the Tyne’ were inspired when Alan Hull, crossing the river, happened to look down into a greasy-spoon caff for taxi drivers? That’s proper local detail, that is.
Clear White Light, Thursday 18 October-Saturday 10 November, Live Theatre, Broad Chare, Newcastle, 7.30pm, (mats. Thurs & Sat 2pm, Sun 4pm), £10-£26. live.org.uk