Brighton Fringe 2022
“Do you believe in ghosts?” asked the Parapsychologist.
Well – yes and no. We don’t necessarily have to believe in an afterlife, or something supernatural – it’s possible that what some of us experience as ‘ghosts’ are in fact events from the past that had sufficient intensity to embed themselves somehow in the fabric of a building, able to be experienced by those people who are sensitive enough to pick up the echo.
The Parapsychologist talked about what she called ‘Stone Tapes’. The same concept occurred in a previous production called ‘Vacant Possession’, also written by Sara Clifford. That one was about an old pre-Georgian house in Lewes, owned by the poet Clare Best, where the audience experienced events from the building’s past times. As well as characters from years ago, there was a lot of piano music in that production, and Clare’s poetry mused – “Where have the notes gone? / Have they been cloned by the old walls? / Are they resting under rafters? under floorboards? / Will others hear them on clear mornings, in years to come?”
It’s a matter of being an efficient receptor. Before the start of the production proper, we were asked for our feelings about ‘ghostly’ experiences. My own thoughts are that we simply don’t know enough about what’s involved. There are almost certainly many natural forces that we haven’t discovered yet. Think about the room you’re sitting in as you read this – it probably seems to be just filled with air, nothing significant to see here. But in fact, of course, it’s teeming with music, images and voice communications, all carried on the radio wavelengths. The room seems empty to us simply because we don’t possess a receiver tuned to pick up the signal.
But if we did . . .
Sara Clifford’s work as a playwright is all about bringing the past to life. A lot of her productions are, like this one, located in a significant building or venue that allows the audience to experience history in a very personal and visceral way. She’s also very concerned to tell ordinary people’s stories, as opposed to those of their masters or rulers. Much of her writing is based on local historical events and on individuals’ reminiscences of their own family history. So ‘Our Dancing Feet’ took place in a dancehall in Eastbourne, showing life in Britain at the time of the 1953 Coronation; while ‘Home Fires’ was set, like this one, in Newhaven Fort, and was about the strikes by First World War military trainees against appalling living conditions and discipline, and the lack of comprehension of the realities of the War by much of the British population. Although the production itself was staged in Seaford, The Fort was also the location of ‘The Tribunal’, a piece about Clifford Allen, a Conscientious Objector held there awaiting a court martial for anti-conscription activities.
Sara Clifford is also keen to involve local people as much as possible. ‘Our Dancing Feet’ and ‘Home Fires’ both had large casts of extras and minor characters from the local communities, and this production featured over forty, as well as the main actors and musicians. Community Cast Directors Angela El-Zeind and Lee Payne made sure that these participants were not there merely as background, but that they provided vivid extensions of the main actors’ performances.
Newhaven Fort was constructed in 1862, on the headland to the west of the harbour, with a commanding view over the bay and past Seaford to the east. The Napoleonic War was over, but as always the British were suspicious of French military intentions under Napoleon III, and later it remained in Army administration through both World Wars. It’s a low structure, dug into the terrain, a warren of narrow passages leading to numerous subterranean chambers. On the surface, ramparts surround a spacious parade ground, with a large Second World War Nissen Hut at one end. This is where the production started, with around a hundred and twenty of us sitting on benches to meet the Parapsychologist I mentioned at the beginning of this review.
For me, this was the weakest part of ‘Two Pairs of Eyes’. Nicola Blackwell’s portrayal was quite authoritative, and she proceeded to summon up several ‘ghosts’ for us: a young woman, a child with her doll, and finally a young man. But she wasn’t quite loud enough to be easily audible in the large space. It all felt a bit ‘stagey’, too – surely the whole experience of ghosts is that they appear almost subliminally, when we’re not expecting them.
Which was what happened when, after we’d split into several smaller groups, we walked through a series of narrow underground passages to a circular gun emplacement, open to the sky. And there he was – the young man from the Nissen Hut, now clad in military fatigues, sitting on the central mounting where the gun would once have stood.
“The Fort is crammed with soldiers”, he said – as much to himself as to any of us, and he described them coming on to the parade ground in the morning chill, their packs heavy and their uniforms wet with dew. He told us he was a Drummer Boy, but his narration seemed to segue between men preparing to embark for France during the Great War, and a much earlier experience of soldiers in Arundel Castle during the English Civil War. Parliamentary troops they were, under siege by Royalist forces, and that hundreds had been killed.
Maybe that’s how it is with ghosts – the building is playing back its ‘stone tape’, but the recording is imperfect, or overlaid, and our receivers aren’t tuned properly, so the signal gets garbled …
He was obsessed with the bones of the dead Civil War soldiers – wagon-loads of them, and as he looked up men with shovels appeared on the rim of the gun pit – but he also implored us to reassure his sweetheart Alison that he loved her and that he’d died bravely – “Tell her I wasn’t afraid”. Two wars, almost three centuries apart, combining in a confused mixture of overwhelming sensations that the Fort had been witness to. Sam Cartwright portrayed them perfectly, producing the vocal emotion but never engaging in eye contact with any of his audience, looking through us rather than at us. As we filed out, back into the tunnel, the poor spectre was sitting silently on the gun mount. Perhaps he’s there still …
It wasn’t a completely quiet procession. Four musicians – Ashley Frost on violin, Max Sweatman on hurdy gurdy, Bill Sweatman on melodeon and Jamie Morgan on drum – took turns to lead us and give musical accompaniment to each stage of our promenade. Each instrument was played to give a mournful effect in its own way, and the steady beating of Jamie Morgan’s drum gave a funereal sound that echoed back to us off the Fort’s ramparts.
The Drummer Boy was an echo from the Great War, or the Civil War, but The Fort was also witness to the Second World War, and we experienced some of the trauma of that conflict too. Deep underground there are shelter tunnels, staffed by nuns, and we were led into one as the air raid siren sounded. They shut the heavy doors as the bombs began to fall, and twenty of us sat on benches in the semi-darkness as the explosions got louder. There was concern that one nun was missing – Sister Josephine was still outside somewhere – but the nun looking after us was calm, at least outwardly. She assured us that God would protect us, and she recited the 23rd Psalm, before getting us to sing ‘Run, Rabbit, Run’ to keep our spirits up. Very much of its wartime era – luckily enough of us were old enough to know the words!
But when the all-clear sounded and we prepared to leave, she saw what appeared to be the missing nun, standing at the door. “Josephine – stay away!” followed by – “I can save her next time!”. She kept on calling this as we climbed the steps back up towards the light, and I realised that it wasn’t just Sister Josephine who was an apparition, but our own nun too, the one who’d been looking after us. Poor Josephine had obviously perished in the raid, and the trauma had badly affected our nun. I wondered if perhaps she had killed herself in remorse. Melody Brown had made her real enough that I wanted to know more about her story – isn’t that the mark of great acting and writing?
Director Amie Burns-Walker had made very imaginative use of the building’s structure, but she was lucky, too, with the weather. As we’d left the gun emplacement the Fort was bathed in an orange glow of sunset; but by now the direct sunlight had gone, and leaving the shelter we noticed three children silently dancing on the ramparts above us, silhouetted against the sky. Had they also died in an air raid? So much pain, so many stories …
And it’s not just war that causes heartbreak, of course. Newhaven has always been a fishing town, with small boats putting out to sea in all weathers. They have to – “It’s a living.” But the sea can be treacherous, and it takes its toll of fishermen’s lives.
We filed into another set of subterranean chambers, past a gaggle of fish-wives in their rough dresses and headscarves, to see a young man mending his nets, and his father imploring him not to set out – “The wind’s getting up.” But he did go, of course … and later the father told us of drowned bodies never recovered, and of mothers and wives having to bury empty coffins. As we filed out, the women pressed small white pebbles into the hands of many of us, as they started to sing, and their voices, at first loud, faded gradually as we moved away – “We’ll be all right, if the wind is in our sails” – I’m still humming the tune days later. Sad and melancholy; it reminded me of lines from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Harp Song of the Dane Women’ – “What is a woman, that you forsake her? / And the hearth fire, and the home acre / To go with The Old Grey Widow-Maker”. Kipling lived at Bateman’s, not far from Newhaven – another local connection.
The last ghost we encountered was that of actor Sidney Keane’s Coastguard, manning his headland lookout. (Keane had also been the young man’s father in the previous sighting) More garbled ghostly messages, overlaid and corrupted by time – he told us about watching for approaching boats, though whether they were the fishing fleet returning, or enemy warships probing the defences, wasn’t clear. The Coastguard talked about the modern-day Ferries, but also about signalling ‘All Clear’ to a beacon on the next headland, in what must have been Napoleonic times. So many tragedies – his eyes were on the horizon as he demanded urgently – “Can you hear them? … Every night I hear them”. He led us to an abandoned building, some kind of storeroom perhaps, the window ledge lit by a few guttering candles, and we were encouraged to leave our pebbles there. So small, so white in the gathering dusk – so many reminders of lives lived and now over.
The fish-wives’ singing had been sad enough, but the Coastguard’s pleading with us – “Don’t leave me. Please, don’t go …” was heartrending. There were tears in my eyes as we left him and walked away, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
All theatre involves a suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. We know that we are actually watching actors perform in front of us, but we choose to believe that the characters and situations are real. ‘Two Pairs of Eyes’ required a double suspension – we had to believe that not only were we watching real people, but that we were watching the ghosts of real people. That’s some jump, but this production managed it hugely effectively. The writing, the direction and the acting all came together, making highly imaginative use of the Fort as a setting, to convince us that we’d had a remarkable experience of ghostly phenomena.
Almost convince. The production’s title comes from the saying that individual people’s perception can be fooled by tricks of the light, or unexpected sounds, and that any believable ghost sighting must be experienced by at least ‘two pairs of eyes’. We were many pairs of eyes in the audience, and in the cold light of day, obviously we hadn’t seen ‘real’ ghosts; but in a way it didn’t matter – we’d been allowed to dip into the stories and the emotions of local inhabitants, and experience something of their lives in a very involving way. We may not have seen spirits – but we’d seen something of the spirit of Sussex people.