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Benighted - An Interview with Playwright Duncan Gates

Benighted - An Interview with Playwright Duncan Gates

2 December 2016 Stephanie Brandhuber

For centuries, telling ghost stories at Christmas has been something of a tradition. This season, Duncan Gates has dusted off a forgotten classic, Benighted by JB Priestly, and adapted it into a truly spine chilling production at The Red Lion Theatre. Incorporating some of the classic horror tropes, a group of friends stranded in a rambling old house in the countryside with sinister inhabitants and a dark secret, Benighted still manages to be uniquely terrifying in its exploration of a horror that may be more psychological than paranormal. We spoke to Duncan Gates about the challenges of the production and how he managed to convey an incorporeal sense of fear and dread on stage.

London Calling: I suspect not many people have heard of Benighted, could you tell us a bit about the story?
 
Duncan Gates: There’s a small group of people travelling from one far-flung place to another, the weather is terrible and they end up having to stop in this big old house in the country, and strange, strange events go down, which leads to them confronting external threats and finding out more about themselves.
 
LC: Why did you decide to adapt this work by JB Priestley?
 
DG: I’d seen the film The Old Dark House (a film adaption of Benighted from the 1930s) when I was 5 years old, and thought ‘this looks great, why wasn’t this a West-End smash at the time?’ And I thought about it and thought is there a capacity to do this, but also make it more interesting because the theatrical space is completely different, and I wanted to be more creative with it, because it deserves it.
 
Having read the source text it’s clear that it’s very different from the film, it’s more introspective and it’s moodier. That weirdly suits a theatre space. Mostly there was just the scope for it to be fun and accessible, and I don’t know, it’s an interesting text, with people working out what they’re for and what they want. It was set in the late 20s, just touching the First World War, and I think a lot of people from all generations were looking at the world and thinking ‘this isn’t a place I recognise or can find my place in.’ Certainly now that’s very relevant.
 
LC: It sounds like it would touch people on a very resonant level nowadays because they feel that now too.
 
DG: Yeah, definitely. Britain is in a period of transition, and I think you’re aware that things aren’t like they were. You have to ask yourself what you want for yourself as well as the greater world in which you live.
 
LC: Why do you think this work has been forgotten/ not adapted before?
 
DG: It’s a short novel, before Priestley started writing drama in the same way. It was out of print for many years, I was quite lucky to get a copy! It’s one of those pieces where you think that maybe after Benighted Priestly got a bit more confident in knowing what he’s writing about. Benighted is more vague and abstract, there’s no sense that he necessarily knows where the story is going, it just sort of occurs, I suppose in that sense it doesn’t lend itself to being adapted.
 
LC: So it’s a horror, how are you going to convey that feeling of scariness through a stage production?
 
DG: Yeah, definitely. It’s suggestive of a horror trope in itself. It’s almost like a psychological horror, a lot of implied stress, anger and sadness that has no means of expressing itself. There is a fear of something and not knowing what it is capable of, and sometimes that thing is external and sometimes that thing is in you, but you just don’t realise.
 
LC: How do you convey that feeling of horror on stage?
 
DG: It’s easy in a way, because the text has the feel of someone thinking in stage terms, there are relatively few fixed sets for example. I think it’s that level of uncertainty and not feeling comfortable around other people for some reason. The people could be extremely grotesque like the Femm Family in the house are, or they could be one of the group, and then you realise you might not understand people like you thought you did. I’m interested in the idea of a claustrophobic space but at the same time feeling an enormous emotional distance from everything going on, floating in a void by yourself in this world, which is one of the scariest feelings of all.
 
LC: What do you think are some of the unique challenges involved in adapting this particular piece for the stage?
 
DG: The doubling is certainly challenging. There are characters that will come in and out of the story. The audience might be confused about whether this person is that person, which makes it a little unsettling. Though a lot of it takes place in halls of the house, there are sequences that have little challenges, such as them driving in the car at the beginning. But if we can convey the idea of a great big warren-like house in what is actually just a small dark room, I think that would be great fun.
 
LC: Do you have a dream project? Is there something you’d like to adapt that hasn’t been done before?
 
DG: I’m amazed that Bedknobs and Broomsticks has never been done. I think it would be utterly, utterly stunning. I would like to take influences from things and create something original, something different and hopefully interesting.  I’m influenced by the paranormal, because the monster is generally you, it’s not things in the dark to be afraid of, what you have to be afraid of is people.
 
Benighted runs from 6 December – 7 January 2017 at The Red Lion Theatre. Tickets are £19.50 with £17.50 concessions, find out more.

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