Blavatsky’s Tower is a claustrophobic family drama. Leaving the Michael Pilch studio, it felt as if the apartment’s internal tensions had been taxed and strained for years, long before I ever walked in. Two of its four inhabitants are obsessive, blinkered theorists and three unable to leave. The confined, hemmed in studio space serves as the fitting background upon which Phillipa Lawford has brought Moira Buffini’s work to life, with all its compressed strife and frustration.
The legend to this apartment’s workings comes quickly and casually from Audrey, played by Madeleine Pollard, the family’s elder sister and maternal figure – the subtlest and most enjoyable performance in the show. The despair of her father Hector Blavatsky, played by Alex Rugman, at his building’s decrepit state, his son Roland’s resolution never to leave the apartment, and the presence of the plebeian ‘crushed’ in the flats below them are all delivered with disturbing nonchalance by a character who has been completely immersed in her father’s building and personal beliefs. Shocked yet intrigued, the visiting doctor persistently attempt to keep a calm bedside manner, but the disbelief is tangible in actor John Livesey’s voice. His soft tones and careful yet gentle presence let us know that he wants to help, but he is largely forbidden, responding with repressed exasperation that is clear to the audience. Alex Rugman’s short-fused, snarling performance justifies the apartment’s subservience to his ideology, but the visions which inform his beliefs are slightly less convincing.
“He acts with convincing bitterness and panic to make us realise, that to varying extents, we are all prisoners in our own towers.”
Everyone is speaking a different language here, trapped by their convictions. Roland, played by Marcus Knight-Adams, with his hatred of outsiders and total faith in his plan to unlock the truth of the universe, makes communicating and accepting a friendly doctor’s presence impossible, frequently calling him ‘Bastard’ for simply being there. This fury is the primary source of comedy in an overwhelmingly bleak play, but towards the end this outraged delivery of insults grows repetitive and a little overwrought, until the final scene gives him every reason to break down and curse to a maximal degree. It is easy to put this down to effective communication of madness but the audience needn’t be cudgelled – it jars with his otherwise passionate and embodied portrayal of a character who lives outside the experience of most student performers in Oxford. His childlike demeanour, biting nails and tugging his shirt, chimes faithfully with the Doctor’s description of him as a ‘fetus’.
Louisa Iselin’s Ingrid initially has the opposite problem, appearing perhaps a little too wooden and plain voiced in her anxious, feeling interactions with the Doctor. When Hector Blavatsky declares that she has a ‘beautiful soul’, I was initially left wondering why he had selected her. Yet in the play’s second half this readily becomes apparent. Iselin’s performance becomes tender, desperate and frail, yet all the while carrying a sinister undercurrent. Madeleine Pollard also comes to the fore here, her acting tightly grasping the tension between a together front, and internal collapse.
Lawford’s minimal stagecraft is a necessary and thoughtfully chosen component of the play, precisely because it goes unnoticed. How might one imagine Blavatsky’s tower? By leaving this question open, the metaphysical pretences of the male characters and their embodiment in room and tower complex become merged – we are encouraged to think outside space and construction. The outside world is a pure Other – not only for the pseudo-prisoners in the top of the tower, but also for the doctor. It is the subtle revelation of his own repression: that he reacts so strongly to the potential judgement of others, lives alone, and longs for intimacy even with the sullied Blavatsky family that marks the power of this piece. As Livesey approaches this self-realisation, he acts with convincing bitterness and panic to make us realise, that to varying extents, we are all prisoners in our own towers. Lawford’s production begins strongly and possesses a momentum that carries it to an even stronger end.