Behind the scenes

Behind this year’s New Writing Festival

Behind this year’s New Writing Festival

There’s been some serious hype around the OUDS New Writing Festival this year, and it all comes to a head in 7th week – the work of four of Oxford’s hottest new writers, battling it out in the BT for the coveted Best Play award. Speaking to the writers themselves and the directors who brought their work to the stage, it wasn’t difficult to see what the fuss was all about. With a line-up as diverse, dedicated, and downright talented as this year’s crop, there was never any question that it’s going to be a zinger. The heterogeneity in terms of experience, approach, and style is remarkable, showcasing talent from the full range of Oxford’s extensive pool. Sami Ibrahim of St Peter’s, throwing his hat into the ring with writing debut The Man Who Loses, concedes that “I haven’t written much before – a few sketches with a comedy troupe. I guess I started writing because I thought it would be a challenge: I wasn’t sure if I could actually write something, so I thought I’d give it a go”. Not so with James Biondi, writer of Lover’s Suicide. Connecticut native, he is in Oxford completing a Masters in English and American Studies. Having managed to produce “six complete plays (including Lover’s Suicide), a novel, and a whole bunch of other kernel-y things”, he told me how his play was written “a couple of years ago, while I was an undergrad under the guidance of Amy Herzog, an American playwright who was a visiting professor at Yale”. What is clear across the board is the value of OUDS Drama Cuppers as a means of incubating theatrical bright sparks – Ibrahim directed in it last year before trying his hand at writing; Lamorna Ash, architect of Christchurch’s five nominations for The Twin Paradox in 2013 Cuppers, returns to the fray with Love Plus; Daniel de Lisle credits “everyone who was a part of Hugh’s 2013 Cuppers” as a key influence. Whether the works have been two months or two years in the making, it’s not just the writers who are putting in the legwork – the directors, hand-picked by NWF producer Isabella Anderson, have been working feverishly to polish their productions. Daniel de Lisle, directing Howard Coates’s Polly, indignantly asserted that he’d “suffered for this production. I’ve taken rehearsals ill, and as my friends will attest (and mock me for), I haven’t been on a night out since we started rehearsals”. The directors all share that dedication, but the delicate writer-director balance is struck differently for each. De Lisle “worked closely with Howard in auditioning the cast and discussing how we would approach the text”, but in the words of Coates himself, “I’ve since let Dan get on with bringing the thing to life”. Olivia Dunlop, directing Ibrahim’s The Man Who Loses, recalls “a number of Pret-based luncheons and heated discussions. On one occasion, we drew in a neighbouring member of the public as to how best to solve a plot point spatially, reenacted using cryptic drawings and available detritus”. Ibrahim, though, “took a back seat”. Having directed new writing last year, she “always felt a bit awkward with the writer there, as I felt I might be ruining his work with every decision I made! So, when the tables were turned, I decided it was best to let the director do whatever she wanted with the play, once it got to the rehearsal stage”. Biondi is taking a less orthodox approach: “I take in the scenes with my eyes closed to avoid obsessing over the actual staging of it”.

The smooth running of the relationship is certainly aided by the pack’s interdisciplinary talents. There isn’t one of them who doesn’t have some experience of another facet of theatre – acting, directing, writing, producing – as Biondi puts it, “theatre, from speaking words onstage to writing words on paper to hammering nails into the wood that people will stand on, has been a huge part of my life for about half of it”. Olivia Dunlop, too, “dabbled in acting in the past, which greatly informed my writing. I think directing arose out of a dissatisfaction in my own acting ability to portray what I imagined, so now I harass others for ‘truth’ instead”.

Clearly, competition is going to be fierce. But whoever wins the day, the heart of what makes the New Writing Festival so exciting is in the name – new, fresh, exciting and searingly bright theatre from playwrights who may well go on to do great things – as Olivia Dunlop puts it: “Oh, I suffer for my art, terribly and endlessly. But I am saving the ordeals for material for that next play”.

PHOTO/matryosha

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Interview with Pterodactyls: more than just the bare bones

Interview with Pterodactyls: more than just the bare bones

Pterodactyls by Nicky Silver is a new project funded by the Oxford Revue and comes to the Burton Taylor Studio at 7:30pm Tuesday-Saturday in 8th Week. The show marks the first time in a long time that the Revue has funded an existing comedy show, and the Oxford Student caught up with Pterodactyls director Kieran Ahern to find out what it’s about and the impressive central fossil-based feature.  

Can you summarise the plot of the play?

The play revolves a Philadelphia family formed from a kaleidoscope of different mental and physical affliction; from delusion to amnesia, and, in the case of the central character Todd (Tom Dowling), an AIDs diagnosis. What follows from this is a descent of these individuals into a far more rudimentary, base state that ends up being both harrowing and hilarious.

How are you blending elements of the realistic and the absurd?

A lot of this comes through the set and the characters at work. The play begins with a very conventional, warmly lit Philadelphia apartment and over the course of the show becomes far bleaker and desolate. Going on alongside this are a number of ludicrous dialogue-based experiences, that oscillate quite distinctly between sentimentality and the surreal.

Rumour has it you are using a very impressive set: a 2 metre dinosaur skeleton, can you tell us the thinking behind this and the difficulties it presented?

One key element of the play itself is a collection of bones found in the backyard by Todd and slowly assembled over the course of the play. Of course it’s taken us a bit longer than an hour to assemble the dinosaur (currently housed in a St Catz’ kitchen) but the main idea is to get the skeleton towering over the audience and really add to the haunting feeling that the show creates.

The play deals with the theme of the AIDS and its treatment in the 1990s. How is this achieved? And why the choice to link it to pre-historic elements?

A lot of this comes down to Todd, who is both a maverick in many ways but at other times really the most human member of the cast. He has been diagnosed with this affliction that really scares him, and yet a familial comfort is not forthcoming. It is the bones, stagnant and decaying at first yet forming a distinctly powerful image by the end, that really provide him with a sense of comfort. It is this that Silver is really trying to show with the pre-historic elements.

Why should people come and see this – what makes it different from other Oxford shows?

What makes Pterodactyls so different from shows is this lucrative blend of black, refined comedy that the cast have spent a long time perfecting mixed with these extraordinary familial situations. Every scene is not just hilarious to watch but also very resonant for the audiences, and they’ll leave it satisfied with a real sense of attachment to some of the characters depicted.

No fear of the unknown for devised theatre

No fear of the unknown for devised theatre

Student shows where the director has little idea what his actors are about to do on stage are something of a rarity. Devised Play One: Fear is such a show. The brainchild of a conversation between Rough-Hewn directors Tommo Fowler and Emma D’Arcy, the project eschews formalised, set scripts in favour of a collaborative creative process, with content driven by the actors and writer Emma Levinkind. Drawing heavily on improvisation, the show is a fluid piece devised in performance (hence the name – clever isn’t it?). After watching a couple of scenes which moved from comic neurosis to unsettling pathos, I sat down with Co-director Thomas Bailey and a few of the cast to discuss the concept and progress of the play. 

This isn’t a fundamentally text driven show, so how have you envisaged the relationship between the writer and the director?

Tom Bailey: It’s a fluid thing. What’s tended to happen is we’ve worked out various themes to explore through improvisation as a group and exercises led by the director. Emma observes and writes scripts which we then use and devise from. Eventually the thing’s gonna be written by Emma but there’s a lot of watching, a lot of post-it notes and spider diagrams.

Is it actor led or director led in terms of how things happen?

Tom: The content has really all come from the actors; it’s our job to facilitate them and the content which is then polished by Emma. Our job is lovely, we just to handpick the best stuff and put it together.

Emma Levinkind: Basically there are scenes which have cropped up time again, and I’ve been putting in some dialogue and jokes to round it off.

Broadly then, what is the piece about (so far)?

Emma: We’ve ended up constructing this incredibly strange world inhabited by characters who are mainly motivated by fear – the fear of being alone, of doing the wrong thing in a social situation.

Hopefully not fear of the stage; I guess it tells you a lot about your actors then?

Tom: Yeah it really does. One of our early tag lines was ‘a play where the actor/character boundary is dangerously fluid’, but most of the characters are so horrible now that we’ve buried that line a little. What’s also important is that we’ve created this communal vocabulary of characters and mini-scenes we can stitch together.

Nick Finerty (actor): One of our first points of inspiration was that we’d each tell a story and everyone would have to impersonate that person and push it further, so by the time it got back to you you were having to impersonate yourself as seen through everyone else.

Sam Ward (actor): that was a really deep time [laughter]

As actors your role in this is quite unusual with such an emphasis on you as content creators. Is that frightening or a release?

Sam: In a way it’s frightening as you don’t have the co-ordinates of a character from a text , but at the same time it’s very free: to make it work we just have to do everything a bit over the top.

Nick: It’s also about making sure you commit to everything, so you can commit equally to things that are farcical and serious.

Sam: That’s why the rehearsals work so well, everyone throws themselves into it.

Lamorna Ash (actress): It’s quite exciting that we come away from each rehearsal having done something completely different and mad as opposed to the routine of doing the same thing every time. This way, everything is fresh all the time and it will certainly be on the night.

Devised Play One: Fear is on at the BT from Tues-Sat of 8th week. Tickets from £5

Caucasian Chalk Circle comes around

Caucasian Chalk Circle comes around

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brecht’s brutal satire, morality play and modernist fairy-tale is currently undergoing treatment by ‘Screw the Looking Glass’, an imaginative and vital student theatre company. The play follows a poor girl, Grusha, who rescues a child from the chaos of war, and Azdak, a strange, messianic character, disillusioned with society and misty-eyed for the revolution.

Although ostensibly set in Georgia, there are references to places and events throughout which through their subtle incongruousness with what we know of history show that this play is in fact intended to be without setting, in either space or time. What’s different about this production is that it takes on this folk-tale style and plays on it; the play is set within a larger play, in which a folk singer narrates it. Most productions cut this aspect, but Screw the Looking Glass are embracing it. The whole piece is underpinned by eastern folk music, and no cast member goes off stage for the duration, instead returning to the ‘audience’ on stage to watch the proceedings.

Brecht plays noticeably on the iconic: Grusha is the beautiful, unlikely heroine who saves the abandoned child, and then plays the role of the virgin mother pursued by troops who have an interest in her infant charge. Meanwhile Azdak is taunted by soldiers, who dress him in robes and a judge’s hat to mock him. Biblical comparisons abound. The play is an “emotional roller-coaster” says director Jessica Lazar, but I see it as being more like a swinging ship; there’s a grace in the way it swings from comedy to gripping drama, almost scene by scene. This swinging certainly seems to have infected the cast. Connie Greenfield’s Grusha dances from wide-eyed and delicate to fierce and assertive with a natural ease, and the whole ensemble appear to sense the ebb and flow of each other’s performances.

Luke Rollason puts in an excellent turn as Azdak. He strikes a peculiar image, a shabby village clerk but possessing of an unpredictable demeanour which somewhat intimidates. The ebb and flow which characterises much of the piece returns again. “I wish you wouldn’t chew like that,” he says, silence falling on an otherwise energetic segment. “It makes me think such awful thoughts.” Contrast between vitality and gripping lull falls within the contrast which defines much of the character himself. “So much of what he says is sarcastic… this is a guy who passionately believes in things, but has to pretend he doesn’t,” says Rollason of Azdak, ‘It’s like playing a player.”

The play is very well set out by the company; shadow puppetry and an inventive use of old suitcases and piles of books for sets are effective in framing the piece. Possible criticisms are not forthcoming. There is a scope for greater individuation in a scene in which a marriage proposal is given by Leo Suter’s Simon Shashava, a soldier leaving his bwloved Grusha to go to war. The form is somewhat recurring in literature, but Suter and Greenfield are undoubtably the ones for the job of bringing Brecht’s elegant writing to life. “I come out of rehearsals like ‘I need a lie down’” remarks Greenfield in passing. The effort pays off. I’ve got my ticket and would recommend anyone does the same.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle runs at the Oxford Playhouse from Wednesday 5th to Saturday 8th of March; tickets start at £11.

Will LMH’s Gatsby deserve to be called Great?

Will LMH’s Gatsby deserve to be called Great?

There’s no denying that The Great Gatsby is enjoying more popularity than it ever has since its publication. The Baz Luhrmann adaptation last summer wasn’t so much a film as a cultural event (US media covered it breathlessly, right down to the production of the soundtrack) and perhaps marked the apotheosis of the worldwide Gatsby obsession. But one need look no further than Lady Edith’s new flapper wardrobe on Downton Abbey to know that the 1920s, and, almost synonymously, Gatsby, are still hot.

This adaptation at the Simpkins Lee Theatre (directed by Dominic Pollard) comes as a breath of fresh air after the prerequisite novel and film. What’s worth noting first and foremost is the treatment of Fitzgerald’s prose in the stage adaptation. While it’s easy to miss a beautiful sentence even on the original page, and where the Luhrmann film often buries the prose beneath miles of technicolor, this script allows Fitzgerald’s writing to command the stage with all of its power.

That said, it’s important to appreciate that the beauty of that prose isn’t only contained in words, but in the overwhelming emotion that saturates the novel. Any adaptation of Gatsby must capture the teenage ecstasy and agony, and since a stage version is hard-pressed to dazzle with daring coupe races, elaborate parties, and special effects as a film can, there’s extra pressure.

This Gatsby both shines and struggles to evoke those emotions. Some errors will be easily mended Charlie Vaughan as Tom Buchanan comes off more coolly menacing than as a swaggering tower of American entitlement, giving the character the flavor of a Bond villain. Elsewhere, Henry van Oosterom, playing the older Nick Carraway, manages to keep in touch well with both the emotions of the story as well as his darker present self. Most importantly, he’ll allow you to forget about Tobey MacGuire in the same role, both an achievement and a public service. Kimberley Sadovich as Jordan Baker also seems comfortable in her role – she projects all of the lithe, lissome elegance and insecurity that character deserves. Hannah Schofield as Daisy, however, struggles to emote that same insecurity, which should border on psychosis. Daisy, as Hannah told me afterwards, isn’t easy to like. She is a hard character precisely because she manages to be both unlikeable and pitiful at the same time, the willing victim of her own naïveté. However, the depth and intensity of Daisy’s impossible desire to have it both ways too often feels flat.

In interviews afterwards, all the cast agreed on one thing: even ninety years after its publication, The Great Gatsby is a piece for the modern day. Answers ranged amongst the cast from the cautionary tale of excess, the show-stopping extravagance, or just the captivating nature of Jay Gatsby himself. Director Dominic Pollard said that “the show doesn’t rely on elaborate staging but instead conveys the excess and privilege of the time through the combination of the prose and acting performances.” For whatever reason, Gatsby has touched a modern nerve and for this reason this adaptation is a worthwhile exploration of the original prose.

The Great Gatsby will be showing at the Simpkins Lee Theatre, LMH, Wednesday to Saturday of 6th week. Tickets are  £7 each, or £5  for students.

PHOTO/ Eva Rinaldi

New Oxford comedy troupe is bold as Big Brass

New Oxford comedy troupe is bold as Big Brass

When The Oxford Student first asked me to interview the writers and performers behind Big Brass, a new sketch comedy show, I had no idea that I would be introducing the article with this insipid anecdote. But as I later discovered, I am writing these very words right now.

Nick Davies, Barney Iley, and David Meredith asked me to meet them in the Iffley Road Gym for our interview. “Meet us in the Iffley Road Gym for our interview”, they said during a conversation we had had before. Thus the plans were merrily confirmed, and I became so excited I lost a few stone.​ It’s a good thing I did because the door to the Iffley Road Gym is quite small and I might not have passed through it otherwise. ​I spotted the comedy trio immediately. A sort of gaggle had formed around Meredith, who was was just finishing his 400th push-up while simultaneously delivering a number of witticisms concerning gymnasia and gymnasium-related issues. His beautiful long hair was trembling with mannish exertion, tumbling down his half-naked body glistening with perspiration. Davies and Iley were also there. We sat down for a hot beef brisket and conducted the following interview.

The beef brisket, which had been brought to our table where it was warm, thanks to the strategically successful lack of breeze coming through the small door, and by us it was eaten, on the table, at the gym; before we, by the table at the gym on which the brisket was served (on the table, I mean, not the gym), did the interview, the brisket was gone, that is to say, eaten, by us (them).

OS: Where do you get inspiration for your jokes?

ND: I wouldn’t say we do jokes.

OS: I mean for the comedy show.

ND: Oh, right. From lots of places, really.

OS: (Obsequious, uncontrollable laughter.) And why did you decide to form your own sketch group, when there are already so many others?

BI: We got tired of always seeing the same old student sketch comedy tropes, with their meaningless repetition and turgid self-reference. We wanted to deal with the issues that really matter, like being tired of always seeing the same old student sketch comedy tropes, with their meaningless repetition and turgid self-reference.

OS: You have lovely eyes.

​DM: Thank you.

I decided to end the interview there, as I was feeling full from all the beef. But as I left the table, I resolved to definitely see the show, unless the weather turned out poorly or I forgot.

Big Brass is playing at the Michael Pilch Studio from Wednesday to Friday of 6th week (26–28 February). Tickets, £5, can be purchased through facebook.com/bigbrass

PHOTO/ Will Truefitt

Semi-monde, fully-fun

Semi-monde, fully-fun

Surprises abound in Semi-Monde, a delightfully dishonest comedy by Noel Coward on at The Playhouse this term. Concerned with the comings-and-goings of almost thirty characters at the Hôtel Ritz, Paris, Semi-Monde oozes 1920s excess and opulence. The numerous back-and-forths between the characters are pithy and charming, while the script often has several conversations going on in tandem.

Many directors would balk at such excess, worried that the cast would be too large, but director Carla Kingham isn’t concerned. It’s very much a ‘fun play,’ she asserts – it may be Coward’s ‘most autobiographical,’ treating issues such as homosexuality with a disarming frankness for a play written in 1927, but it’s witty and charming all the same. It’s a very light piece, and the audience – much like the characters, who flit between lovers at the drop of a hat – isn’t expected to carry much of an emotional investment, merely going along for the ride.

As for the cast, they seem to relish working in such a large group. I remark that, given the sheer number of actors involved, it’s not likely they all know each other’s real names, let alone character names. Kingham points out that many of the play’s characters don’t even meet, and the methods used to rehearse reflect this. Both ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ rehearsals have been used in order to meet the demands of working within such a broad play while still micromanaging the smallest of interractions.

The cast treated us to a rendition of some of the 1920s dances which are to be performed during the interval. There’s no cynicism present here, no bitterness or any trace of an attempt to comment on the decadence of upper-class society– it’s sheer, unadulterated fun. Flourishes such as this are a sign that Semi-Monde should be a breeze to watch, and Kingham tells me that the cast and crew are working really hard to evoke the world of the Hôtel Ritz for the audience. During the interval there’ll be a real bar on stage which the audience will be able  to order from, and the entire performance will be accompanied by a live jazz band, featuring music composed by Toby Huellin (In Her Eyes, A Theory of Justice).

If nothing else the show should be good fun, but only time will tell if the enthusiasm of the cast and the novelty of the set-up will translate into a theatrical experience which does more than simply amuse. Still, after a term of Oxford drama which has seen the spooky In Her Eyes and the perverse Pitchfork Disney hit the theatres, and with the murderous Sweeney Todd on the horizon, maybe some stylish, jazzy fun is just the remedy – and Semi-Monde is sure to offer this in spades.

Semi-Monde is showing from the 19th to the 22nd  of February at The Oxford Playhouse. Tickets from £11.

PHOTO/ Duncan Cornish

Preview Sweeney Todd: The ballad of pie and murder

Preview Sweeney Todd: The ballad of pie and murder

A ship arrives from Australia, bringing a thoroughly disenchanted man to London. Equipped with shiny silver razors and assisted by one Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney Todd sets on a murderous spree, targetting those who had wronged him. Such is the opening of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street which comes to stage at Keble O’Reilly in 5th week.

Described as a story of revenge by its creator Stephen Sondheim, the musical gets interpreted differently by director Luke Rollason, who puts the emphasis on its humanity. ‘Sweeney Todd is about nine really lonely characters that find each other. That’s one of the reasons the duets are so powerful.’ This directorial choice becomes apparent in ‘My Friends’ a number performed by Todd (Andy Laithwaite) and Mrs. Lovett (Helen Wilson): the fragility of interaction and the joy of discovery of a purpose are both present in the song. Rollason explains, ‘Every bit of music is that character’s thought process. Sometimes the driving force is the contrast between the music and the lyrics, like in ‘Little Priest’ it is very dark, but set to the rythm of waltz, dum-dee-dum, so it’s almost cheerful.’

Maintaining the delicate balance between tragic and comic in Sweeney Todd is a challenge. ‘We tried not to make it into a black comedy or farce. The humour does not come from the play parodying itself’, says Rollason. Wilson adds, ‘A lot of it is realistic. Even singing, in certain scenes, can be seen as actual singing, not musical theatre.’

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Routinely staged as an opera, Sweeney Todd has a demanding score. The singing nature of the play is intensified with the introduction of the chorus. (An integral part of the original script, the chorus has been left out of the, arguably, most famous adaptation: the 2007 film version by Tim Burton.) When comparing his own performance with the earlier ones, Laithwaite states he has tried to create a different version of the Demon Barber, one that wouldn’t be ‘whispering seduction, like Johnny Depp, or over the top, like Michael Ball’. Wilson, in her turn, sees Mrs. Lovett as a very hopeful character and the play, as a journey. Thus, ‘By the Sea’ becomes an anthem to the future, and Wilson’s Mrs. Lovett is both charming and refreshing.

This is an ambitious adaptation worth seeing; and if you remain unconvinced, let me add that it also envolves a revolving stage–for the first time in the recorded history of Oxford.

PHOTOS/ Romain Reglade

Sweeney Todd is playing at the Keble O’Reilly from Wednesday to Saturday of 5th week. Tickets from £8.50 http://www.wegottickets.com/milkandtwosugars

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