Earlier this year New Apollo and Cop the Needle brought us ‘A Kind of Conjuration’, a play based on the 1944 Portsmouth trial of medium Helen Duncan, who was accused under the 1735 Witchcraft Act of ‘a kind of conjuration’. As part of Portsmouth Festivities, audiences will have another chance to see the performance this Wednesday at The Square Tower in Old Portsmouth, this time with the addition of a prelude featuring ghost hunter Harry Price. We had a quick chat with Stuart Olesker, one of the writers on the project.
The play is based on a true story – why did you choose this particular story to tell?
The notion of the trial was certainly intriguing. The discovery that the plaintiff was nationally acclaimed and with local connections was even more intriguing.
My collaborator, John Stanton, and I are founders of Cop the Needle Productions which specialises in dramatising curious and lesser known lives and events associated with Portsmouth’s multifaceted character. Here was a story about beliefs, deception, careless talk, wartime paranoia, and the distortions in the reporting of truth. The courtroom scenes in the play are verbatim dialogue from the trial. The exchanges between prosecutor and witness were, we thought, so bizarre that we could not improve on the original – so we left those bits in as ‘verbatim theatre’. The rest is our invention.
What attracts you to using a true story as the basis for a performance?
We have found that audiences never tire of hearing stories about their own city or of discovering unusual tales that require merely writers, actors and a director to bring them to life. In this we are lucky to work alongside New Apollo who ensure that the results are lively, memorable and true to the spirit of their sources.
Since its performance at The Cellars, Eastney earlier this year, you’ve added a prelude where ghost hunter Harry Price tells of his experiences while investigating the psychic claims of Helen Duncan. Why did you think the piece needed this addition?
Harry Price was a colourful individual in the 20s, 30s and 40s who, like his friend Harry Houdini, was a tireless investigator into the claims of mediums and ghost watchers. He could spot frauds – while himself being accused of fraudulent practice. He was at first convinced – and then dismissive – of the claims of Helen Duncan. Indeed he was continually changing his attitude from belief to scepticism – and back – throughout his life. As he saw it, he and Helen Duncan had much in common: a wish to believe in the supernatural, a desire for attention and the acuity of the performer/entertainer. The addition of a prologue by ‘Harry Price’ is essentially to place the trial in its historical and social context.
25 June 2014, The Square Tower, Old Portsmouth
Doors: 7pm, Show:8pm. Tickets: £10 advance, £12 on the door
Tickets available from www.thecellars.co.uk, but hurry, there are only a limited number left!