Preview: Our Country’s Good

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s politically charged Our Country’s Good comes to Oxford’s Keble O’Reilly theatre in 3rd Week. Situated on a convict ship headed to Australia in the 1780s, the play is packed with love triangles, power struggles, and clever dialogue.

The crux, however, is the staging of a play within the play itself, completely altering the relationships between the characters as all are leveled on the stage. As their involvement with the theatre gradually softens the hearts and minds of the convicts, the play raises vital questions about the role of art in convict rehabilitation. Director Fay Lomas describes how controversy over banning books in prisons made her keen to put on the play: “I heard Chris Grayling being interviewed on the radio trying to justify the ban and ended up shouting at the radio in frustration. It really got me thinking about the importance of art/ literature as something for everyone, and about the role art can play in rehabilitation.”

The play sees convicts find their voices and learn about themselves through theatre, unfolding in the shadow of one execution, and under the looming threat of another. The dichotomy created is clear: either convicts and leaders can come together to better themselves through theatre, or the group can self-destruction as those in charge exploit their power over those below.

The power relations between the cast are at the heart of the play’s dramatic tension, as Lomas aims to stress visually by creating a literal hierarchy with blocks on the stage. The ground level is the confine of the convicts, only allowed to progress up onto higher levels when acting in the play. Though the metaphor is clear and striking, it will be interesting to see how the cast succeeds in playing this out without disrupting the movement of the play.

Dominic Pollard and William Yeldham do a good job, however, with their testosterone-fuelled contest as Ralph and Wisehammer trying to win the affections of Mary, played by Alannah Jones; it fits perfectly with Lomas’s stage concept, as the two of them subtly air their grievances with Mary nervously shuddering between them.

Mary’s part, played by Alannah Jones, is set to be more challenging than those of Ralph and Wisehammer. The female characters are given a more passive role, so that much of their acting relies on body language, something that presents an inevitable challenge. Jones calls her character “frustratingly shy,” presenting a “compelling contradiction of worldliness and naivety.” It’s an absorbing combination, and hopefully Jones’s female cast members will fill the role accordingly. Another difficulty that faces the cast is the multi-rolling, as all the characters but Ralph play dual roles; Lomas takes the same approach as Ralph within the play – the difficulty can be turned into an advantage.

While it’s hard to see how a play set on an 18th century convict ship could be relevant and engaging to an audience today, Our Country’s Good is set to grip its viewers firmly. Its metatheatrical elements keep the audience thinking about their role, and the role of theatre, equally keeping Lomas on her toes.

Directing Ralph to act as director “is really rewarding because of the way it makes you more conscious of your own process of creating a show,” she says. The thought and passion going into the play at this early stage is set to result in a thrilling and entertaining watch – don’t miss out!

‘Our Country’s Good’ is playing at the Keble O’Reilly in 3rd week


Baby Love and LGBTQ Society reach rapport after harassment claims

Baby Love Bar, home of popular LGBT night Poptarts, is to introduce a code of conduct in response to criticisms of the way it handled an incident of alleged sexual harassment last week.

The allegations centred on an incident last Tuesday evening, which was described to the police as “one gay guy, sat on another gay guy’s lap.” The bar’s bouncers refused to eject the alleged harasser, and allegedly claimed that “it’s got to be physical to be sexual harassment” and that “these things happen in gay bars.”

One witness told The OxStu: “Ok, so this older guy was there, and he was flirting with a lot of people. When they turned him down he would get quite nasty. For example, he asked me if I wanted a drink and I politely said no, then he got quite nasty, asking me if I was a child and a virgin, telling me I shouldn’t be here if I was an immature virgin

The witness continued: “Then he abused my female friend saying she wasn’t really a lesbian and just wanted to have sex with me

Then come and sat down on my lap and wouldn’t get off. He repeated this whole process with another boy, refusing to get off his lap for ages even after he said.”

Thomas, duty manager that evening, defended the bar’s handling of the incident, telling the OxStu: “The nature of the nightclub scene lends to numerous allegations being made. It would be irresponsible for unwitnessed incidents to be dealt with with ‘immediate removal’, without trying to establish the facts,  being careful not to diminish the gravity of the situation.

“Both victims and “alleged accused” have their rights to fairness,” although admitting: “Fairness though does not always comes across as fair in the heat of dealing with a sensitive incident.”

However Joel Hide, Social Secretary for OU LGBTQ Society, claims the staff have since changed their position, saying: “The management of Baby Love are completely agreed that the lack of immediate response was wrong, and are working with the LGBTQ society and the police to write and implement an effective door policy. It is of the utmost importance to the Society that Poptarts remains a safe space for all our members, and we will be working closely to ensure that this new policy includes strictly enforced zero tolerance on sexual harassment.”

He continued: “The bouncers’ behaviour was completely unacceptable, however the victim blaming and lack of action taken was less indicative of a problem with Baby Love specifically and more of a broader culture which accepts sexual harassment in clubs as normal.”

Following meetings with senior members of the OU LGBTQ Society committee, Babylove Bar has pledged to work with the society and the police to introduce a Code of Conduct for such matters.

Thomas declined to comment on alleged comments made by the bouncers noting “I am not in a position to comment on ‘these things happen in gay bars’, as I do not know what ‘these things’ refer to.”


OUSU apologises for “deeply frustrating” election delays

OUSU has been forced to issue an apology after a number of JCR officers criticised its handling of college elections.

OUSU’s actions were described as “deeply frustrating” after it cancelled its subscription to Mi-Voice – the online voting system previously used in most JCR elections – during the summer. OUSU officials failed to set up a new system in time for the beginning of term, with many JCRs consequently forced to postpone scheduled elections. Wadham JCR has delayed elections for its Vice President and Charities Officer, with Somerville JCR forced to use a paper ballot in its elections on Thursday. OUSU was also criticised for the failure to inform JCRs of its actions.

OUSU cancelled its subscription to Mi-Voice due to weaknesses in the system and the potential for electoral fraud. President Louis Trup blamed the inability to establish a new system in time for Fresher’s Week on “the complexities of the data and its ownership”.

Trup stated: “Our mistake was in not being more transparent about the work going on to make this happen. We apologise to the colleges for any inconvenience caused and will notify you as soon as the elections module is available”. Trup added that OUSU has put “all its available energy” into resolving the issue.

Wadham SU Chair Andrew McKay said he felt “let down” by OUSU. McKay, a third-year Human Sciences student, stated: “It has caused a great deal of inconvenience … we want to know why common rooms were seemingly not informed of this change.”

Aliya Yule, a candidate in the postponed election for Wadham SU Vice-President, commented that OUSU’s actions are “deeply frustrating”, stating: “It would have been nice if OUSU had let colleges know, rather than allowing us to find out when it came to setting up our elections in 1st week.” Yule also voiced concern about the ability of OUSU officials to organise their own elections, scheduled for 6th week of Michaelmas.

Discussing Somerville’s JCR elections, which due to the online difficulties will be held by paper ballot, Returning Officer Joe Smith stated: “I feel that it may actually increase turnout due to the election appearing more visible, rather than simply having voter codes that get lost in people’s inboxes”.

But one Somerville student told the OxStu: “I know my ancestors fought for my right to vote but I’d much rather exercise that right from the comfort of my chair using my laptop than have to make the arduous trek to some ballot box. Think about all those poor Cowley dwellers who will be disenfranchised through laziness”.

Mi-Voice states on its website that it aims to “provide the most cost effective solution for our customers and to increase participation in customer events”.

OUSU’s decision may be related to the allegations of vote ‘rigging’ following the University’s referendum on NUS affiliation held in May. The allegations, which concerned 1,000 seemingly tampered votes, caused the referendum to be voided.


Tommy Robinson cancels Union talk after prison recall

Tommy Robinson, founder and former leader of the English Defence League (EDL), has been recalled to prison and will not give a scheduled talk at the Oxford Union on Thursday 23rd October.

Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley Lennon, was jailed in January for 18 months for mortgage fraud but released in June. Robinson’s Facebook page states he “has been recalled back to Prison for responding to a threatening [tweet] […] in breach of his Licence conditions”.

An email from the Oxford Union to its members on 20th October confirmed that Robinson will not speak on 23rd October but, “having spoken to his lawyers” they “still hope to host Mr Robinson […] later this term”. The Union hope Robinson will appear after his recall, which they say is fixed at 28 days.

Claims have been made on Robinson’s Facebook page of a police cover-up. A post, apparently from his assistant Helen ‘Hel’ Gower, alleges that he has been recalled to prison due to the fact that the police “didn’t want him to speak at the Union […] because he was about to reveal some of their little secrets”.

An image reportedly of a text message written by Robinson shows him saying he was due to reveal “police persecution […] including bribery and blackmail” and claiming his return to prison is “to prevent [him] exposing the facts on Thursday at the Oxford Union”.

When approached for comment, Gower, who currently has control of Robinson’s Facebook and Twitter pages, confirmed that Robinson will not attend the Union.

She also stated her belief that his recall was due to Robinson “challenging Bedfordshire Police about their lack of action over all the threats […] on Twitter against him and his family,” labelling the recall an “excuse to stop Tommy attending [the Union]”. 

Bedfordshire police declined to comment on Robinson’s and Gower’s claims.

Robinson’s appearance was controversial in Oxford: Oxford Unite Against Fascism (OUAF) had written an open letter calling on the Union to withdraw his invitation. They were also organising a protest outside the Union which was scheduled to coincide with Robinson’s talk.

In the open letter, published online, OUAF criticised the Union for “contributing to a climate of Islamaphobia”.

Mayank Banerjee, President of the Oxford Union, defended the move to invite Robinson: “The Union stands by the invitation to Mr Robinson and we would like to reiterate that an invitation from the Union is not an endorsement of any particular agenda.

“The Union believes in the principle of freedom of speech and we would encourage all members who disagree with Mr Robinson to question him on his views at the event later in the term.”

While he was leader of the EDL, Robinson “organised and lead [sic] violent racist demonstrations and waged a campaign of demonisation of Muslims”, OUAF claims. Although he is no longer involved with the EDL, OUAF say he “continues to incite racial hatred against Muslims”.

The open letter had received support from Billy Hayes, General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), who signed OUAF’s letter according to the Unite Against Fascism campaign’s Facebook page. The CWU is the major trade union for those working in the communications industry and Hayes therefore represents over 200,000 people.

Robinson left the EDL in 2013 and now collaborates with Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank. However, when contacted, OUAF said they “do not believe that Robinson has changed his fascist views” and “remain opposed to any future invite”.

St John's College

St John’s Gender Equality Festival accused of libel by OUSU campaign leader

The committee for the St John’s Gender Equality Festival have been accused of libel in a circular email sent by Sam Galler, co-chair of OUSU’s “Mind Your Head” campaign.

The accusation centres around the statement released by the committee on Saturday evening, which apologised “unreservedly” for a “trans-exclusionary” article written for the festival zine by former Magdalen LGBTQ rep Elsa Field.

The committee’s apology, which disowned the practice of “platforming views [...] that contribute to a culture of oppression and fear’ was released following a flurry of criticism on social media, most prominently from the Oxford University LGBTQ Society trans rep Rowan Davis, who labelled the article “transphobic”.

Field has since resigned from her post as LGBTQ rep for Magdalen JCR, citing her “personal political views” as irreconcilable with her position.

Galler, who described himself in the circular as an “OUSU welfare campaign leader” slammed the committee’s statement as “inappropriate” and “libellous”, claiming that it both “negatively mischaracterises” and has been used to “demonise” Field, the author of the original piece.

“As someone responsible for promoting mental health at Oxford, I feel strongly that there have been mistakes made that are damaging to student wellness, and that these need to be corrected,” Galler continued, before requesting a full apology from the committee.

When contacted by the OxStu, OUSU VP (Welfare) Chris Pike stressed that Galler’s email does not represent an official OUSU position. Pike noted that, while “the feelings and wellbeing of all students are important, I do not believe that individual wellbeing can be used to excuse systemic oppression, including transphobia.”

Anna Bradshaw, OUSU VP (Women), took a similar line, commenting: “Within OUSU we are totally committed to the representation, inclusion and liberation of trans students.

“Our policy means that we define a ‘woman’ as ‘anyone who self-defines wholly or partially as a woman and/or as transfeminine’.”


Oxford downplays A-level panic

The University of Oxford has denied that the “provisional” nature of August A-level results mean that it should not longer use them to finalise course places.

The denial comes after OCR, one of Britain’s biggest exam boards, admitted that results should “not be viewed as finalised” before re-marking has been completed in late October, almost a month after the beginning of Michaelmas term.

The exam board’s comments have been made despite the standard practice of allocating places on the basis of August grades, which OCR now insist should be viewed as “provisional” rather than final.

A statement from the university press office denied that the lateness  that “the University has never denied anyone a place at Oxford as a result of an exam board error,” while admitting that “In a very small number of cases the delay in re-marking may result in candidates having to defer entry.”

Alison Rogers, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, was critical of OCR’s admission, saying: “It is always disappointing to hear of cases where students’ university chances are disrupted by human error in the marking of examinations and we should all be concerned about any erosion in public and schools’ confidence in the marking of A-levels and GCSEs.

“Standards in our qualification system must be seen to be robust, rigorous and able to stand up to the highest scrutiny and this must begin with the marking of examination scripts.”

The Oxford Student

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