Arts University Bournemouth (AUB) brings 19th century Paris to life on stage as AUB Productions rounds off its 2022/23 season with original musical Masque Macabre.
The musical follows a group of students in Paris in the late 1800s, who come across a museum full of curiosities. The students also stumble upon the enigmatic owners, Monsieur and Madame Bonnin, who introduce them to the museum and the automaton women within.
“There’s a sense of spell-making and moving into an alternative reality,” says director and AUB BA (Hons) Acting course leader Katharine Piercey. “The stories are about helping people to learn something about themselves, including this group of students. This museum almost holds the answers to their future.
“There's also the element of underlying danger. This isn’t necessarily a safe and cosy museum; there’s a sense of mystery and along the way some beautiful music, which supports all that.”
Masque Macabre is a brand-new musical, written for BA (Hons) Acting students by Crispin Harris and Paul Knight. Katharine says that to have something written specifically for the 15-strong cast is “pretty amazing and really rare.
“Working with new writing is always a special experience, because you’ve got the writers with you in the room, or an email away. There's an amazing collaboration in terms of that creative team.
“But for Masque Macabre there’s also the AUB-wide collaboration. We've got our great actors and we’re working with AUB costume designers and makers, as well as set designers and make-up artists. All those students are coming together to create this piece.
“I think ‘special’ is a very good word – it’s new, it’s a world premiere.”
AUB Productions is really interested in championing and producing new work, and that this isn’t the first collaboration with musical director Paul Knight. The composer previously worked with AUB on The Turn of the Screw in 2016.
The musical is based on the works of Guy de Maupassant, often revered as a master of the modern short story. An admirer of passionate women, as Masque Macabre co-writer Crispin Harris attests:
“His mother was an unusually strong woman for the age and negotiated a separation from her husband. She became a major influence on the young Guy's life.”
Throughout his life, Maupassant wrote over 300 short stories; a lot of them centred around people, especially women, from the fringes of French society. A student of the movement now known as naturalism, he counted Flaubert (author of the controversial Madame Bovary) as a mentor, and Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev and Alexander Dumas as friends.
“The naturalistic writers did not shy away from the truth lurking beneath French society,” says Crispin. “Not only do many female characters have minds of their own, but they often break the rules of the 19th century game.
“Maupassant would’ve approved of AUB. He was surrounded by mentors his whole life who encouraged him to explore and develop his skill.”
Amelia Shipton, Ollie Hiemann and Hannah Burn are just three of the 15 final-year BA (Hons) Acting students featuring in Masque Macabre.
Playing the role of Madame Tellier, Amelia says one of the highlights of the creative process was getting to work with new writing.
“We’re the first people to play these characters; I find it intellectually stimulating to be able to go away and make this my own,” she explains. “Exploring and looking at the psychology of this character and how can I make sure that I deliver the particular story in the best and most truthful way possible.”
Fellow cast member Ollie, who plays M. Bonnin in the production, adds, “Everything is very fresh, every time you turn a page of the script you have absolutely no idea what's going to come out, and it's so interesting seeing how everybody interprets their characters.
“It’s amazing to be able to experiment different ways of approaching a scene or a song and seeing what works, because the sky is the limit with a new play.”
While working on a new production offers up a lot of freedom to interpret, it must also bring along its own set of challenges. Hannah, who’s playing the role of Mme Bonnin, thinks this is all part of the appeal.
“I do think the challenges are what makes it so great,” she says. “Learning all the music was the most daunting thing at first for me, because we couldn’t go away and sort of listen to the soundtrack.
“It was really about drilling it in in rehearsals and putting in a lot of extra time. But already I can see how quickly we've adapted to picking the music up.”
All three have plans to stay within the industry following graduation. Ollie will be heading back to Edinburgh to take on the role of Ned Schneebly in School of Rock at the Fringe this August.
Meanwhile, Amelia will be writing a new piece for her own theatre company The Tiny Company, with a mind to produce in the next year or so. Hannah will be based in London after graduation, where she plans to continue writing a play of her own, aiming to take it to Edinburgh Fringe and beyond once it’s completed.
Masque Macabre opens at Pavilion Dance South West in Bournemouth on 1 June, running until 3 June.