Demi Paradise to perform Othello within the walls of Lancaster Castle

Major Peter Leeson leading drill with cast members in the Debtors Prison cells

Major Peter Leeson leading drill with cast members in the Debtors Prison cells - Credit: Archant

With real soldiers giving marching orders and the dressing room in a death cell, the cast of Othello won’t be short of inspiration. Judith Dornan reports

Producer Steve Tomlin in front of the castle

Producer Steve Tomlin in front of the castle - Credit: Archant

In almost a thousand years of history, many bloody scenes have been enacted within the walls of Lancaster Castle. Now, the historic royal seat of one of Shakespeare’s great heroes, Henry IV, plays host to another tale of death and betrayal.

Gabriel Paul (Othello) in rehearsals

Gabriel Paul (Othello) in rehearsals - Credit: Archant

A production of the Bard’s tragedy, Othello, with the building itself as a unique backdrop, is to be staged by the castle’s own theatre company, Demi Paradise Productions.

Founded by actor Stephen Tomlin in 2000, Demi Paradise perform Shakespeare in promenade style with audiences following the company on a wandering adventure through the ancient spaces as scenes take place in Hadrian’s Tower, the Shire Hall, court room and medieval cells.

Staged only once every two years - the last was Much Ado About Nothing in 2011 - and with audiences of just 60 a time, this is a rare glimpse of Shakespeare in a place whose owners formed the subject of some of his greatest works.

Tomlin knows the Castle well – he’s been guide there since 1998 – and he thinks Othello suits the place. He said: ‘It likes a dark tale, this castle.

‘We can do comedies here, we proved that in 2011 with Much Ado About Nothing. But it likes the darker things – because it is dark itself. It has a dark heart and a lot of very dark things have happened here.’

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The castle is famously the scene of the Lancashire Witches imprisonment and trial. But its greatest inhabitants were John O’Gaunt and his son, Henry Bolingbroke, who seized the throne to become Henry IV.

Bolingbroke’s rise and the founding of the Duchy of Lancaster is told in Shakespeare’s Richard II and Tomlin says the idea of staging this work in the upstart king’s own castle grew as the Duchy’s anniversary approached in 2000.

It worked so well that they staged Measure for Measure the following year, with scenes given extra impact by the castle’s debtors prison cells.

Lancaster was then Britain’s only castle to remain a working gaol, a function it held for 800 years. The Category C prison closed in spring 2011 but the building is still the area’s crown court.

History is still unfolding here. In the Shire Hall, for instance, the ornate shields of Henry and John O’Gaunt hang overlooking a plain plywood dock erected for the trial of the Birmingham Six.

Tomlin says: ‘This is still a working castle. I think our plays are part of that history.’ This time, innovative new artistic director Louie Ingham, associate director at Lancaster Dukes Theatre, plans a contemporary take on the play.

An excited Tomlin accosted Ingham in the street after he saw her reinterpretation of Hamlet, which she describes as ‘Vivienne Westwood meets Quentin Tarantino’, at the Dukes last April.

She recalls: ‘The day after, Steve tracked me down and, in the pouring rain outside the Dukes, asked me to consider doing Romeo and Juliet.

‘But I felt that had been done enough as a play and that I wasn’t necessarily the best person to do a traditional version. So I suggested doing something new - a contemporary version of Othello.’

She has enlisted help from two diverse sources. Since the play is largely set in occupied Cyprus where Othello is the general tasked with quelling Turkish rebels, Pte Joe Cluney from the Territorial Army based at Fulwood Barracks in Preston, and Major Peter Leeson, of the Lancaster Territorials, will be drilling and training the cast.

Pte Cluney said: ‘The idea is to give a military bearing and to help the actors to get inside the mindset of people like us.’ And Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Court Theatre associate Richard Tydeman, an old friend of Ingham, is leading workshops to help the cast connect with their characters.

Tydeman, who was trained by RSC legends Cicely Berry and the company’s co-founder John Barton and has worked with Peter Hall at the National Theatre, is fascinated by the location.‘

‘Anything which can visually locate the world of the play will help – and it’s such a wonderful experience for the audience.’

Ingham plans an immersive experience - the audience will pass through ‘zones’, overhear exchanges in castle corridors and be plunged into blackness lit only by torches for plotting scenes.

Her creative team includes composer Lee Affen who plans to layer recorded sounds, from helicopter blades to marching feet, with live music, and Rachel Daniels, who will work with Preston’s Museum of Lancashire on costumes.

Actor Gabriel Paul, who takes the title role said: ‘I was told it was going to be in a castle. But it wasn’t until I actually came up to Lancaster that it really sank in.

‘It’s going to be a challenge and maybe an emotional rollercoaster for me.’

Blackpool actress Charlotte Dalton, who plays Desdemona, says the cast have the perfect dressing room in which to prepare for such a dark play. ‘It’s the room where they used to hang people. You can see where the gallows used to be. It’s very eerie.’

Othello opens at Lancaster Castle on Thursday February 27 and runs until March 22. For tickets, call 01524 64998.