The Haunting: Ghosts of Every Shade

The Haunting: Ghosts of Every Shade is a series of events and commissions currated by our partners Alchemy and inspired by an M.R. James ghost story. Here, Alchemy Director Dr. Nima Poovaya-Smith tells us more about the commissioning process and what to expect at these special events.

I have always enjoyed working with artists over commissions. The theme is always clear – but never intended as a strait jacket.  I like to give artists complete freedom about their modes of interpretation. With The Haunting, for instance, I’ve been at pains to tell artists that they can approach it literally or metaphorically. Going from past experience, I know that almost invariably, what they produce will be far richer, more complex and more nuanced than anything my imagination could ever have conjured up.

The process is always unique. Steve Manthorp, for instance, is producing a signature piece for The Haunting – the eponymous Haunted Doll’s House based on M.R. James’ ghost story. Having known Steve for nearly 30 years I was aware of our shared love of M.R. James’ stories. What was a wonderful coincidence, however, was that when I offered Steve the commission, he had already independently decided to construct this piece. It fulfilled a deep and long-held urge to capture a strange and unsettling story through a richly detailed, if somewhat spooky, three dimensional artefact. Consequently, Steve’s commission is almost complete – well ahead of the deadline – as the attached image demonstrates.

I was delighted that Simon Armitage accepted a writing commission for The Haunting (thanks to deft brokering by ILF) and was interested in exploring new ways of approaching this theme. He was also interested in the possibility of using other voices for his performance and possibly music as well. However, until the piece is actually complete, I know it would be actively unhelpful to pin Simon down about exact details. And of course he might decide on a totally different approach – completely the artist’s prerogative.

Once on board, artists can be overwhelmingly generous. Simon has given unstintingly of his time, and has responded to our various communications with both wit and good humour. Imtiaz Dharker too has been incredibly warm and generous.  She won the Queen’s Poetry Gold medal in 2014, not to mention numerous other accolades, but like Simon she wears these honours very lightly indeed. She also coined a word that we have been using freely ever since – when she described the commission as ‘unrefusable’. Her willingness to take a leap into the dark is fantastic. Christella Litras and Rob Green are two talented vocalists and composers who have never worked with Imtiaz before. She has happily granted permission for them to set her Haunting poems into song. ‘As long as the words are clearly articulated’ was her only stipulation. Not a difficult one, for as Rob said to me – ‘we have always honoured the words, in every song we have sung’.

Jack Lockhart is animating a number of images relating to The Haunting and early glimpses of what he has produced are quite mesmerising. He also has the capacity to make us laugh with his total irreverence about the project– an irreverence I hasten to add that never compromises his work. I also love it when artists offer suggestions for the project overall. Jonnie Khan, for instance, is producing soundscapes for The Haunting. He also has technical expertise and volunteers ingenious ideas for the overall sound and lighting.

Artists must enjoy their capacity to surprise. Adele Howitt, in her response to Edith Wharton’s Pomegranate Seed has certainly done that by using pomegranate pollen formation as her main source of inspiration. ‘Nature’ Jack commented ‘can be far more suggestive than we ever can’.  Adele’s working drawings have enthralled both Leeds Library and Alchemy and as a result they will go on display as well.

I am greatly looking forward to what Zareena Bano will be creating on a selection of recycled glass platters and epergnes. All I know is that her starting point will be drawn from Indo-Iranian fables and legends where beautiful damsels and handsome youth shapeshift and transmogrify into ogresses and demons. Dancer Rashmi Sudhir and music maestro Vijay Venkat are also planning to use the theme of sorcery for their performance. Poets Rommi Smith and John Siddique are deeply immersed in the mysterious process of creativity and we are leaving them to get on with it. ‘The Muse of Poetry is a difficult Muse’ John has frequently reminded me. The trust, on my part, is absolute.  I hope it is mutual.

The Haunting: Ghosts of Every Shade – Simon Armitage with Rommi Smith, John Siddique, Joe Williams, Jonnie Khan, Steve Manthorp and Adele Howitt.

Saturday 7 October, 7.30pm, Kings Hall, £12/10
Book Now.

The Haunting: Ghosts of Every Shade – Imtiaz Dharker with Christelle Litras, Rob Green and Jonnie Khan.

Sunday 16 October, 5.15pm, Ilkley Playhouse, £6/4
Book Now.

The Haunting: Ghosts of Every Shade runs from Friday 7 October – Monday 7 November with many more events across Leeds.

Download the full programme here or click here to visit Alchemy’s website.