Behind the scenes

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Preview: Fat Pig

I arrive mid-rehearsal of Fat Pig into an intense argument that feels more like a courtroom drama than the scene of a comedy. Yet, the immediate connection I witnessed between characters solidifies what this play is about – human relations and interactions.

Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig has been widely performed since its inception in 2006 from Melbourne to Mexico City. This is indicative of the play’s universal appeal dealing with the endless obsession with weight in society.

Talking to the director/producer/lead actress (and probably more roles than can be listed here) Phosile Mashinkila, she tells me that this universal appeal is why she wanted to put this play on in Oxford. We are bombarded with a constant stream of body shaming every day in the media yet it still remains a difficult topic to talk about.

Fat Pig concerns Tom (Jason Imlach) who falls in love with plus-sized Helen (the aforementioned Phosile Mashinkila) and how his friends and colleagues react to this. Yet, this play with its brash direct dialogue is not pushing morals but instead about confronting this issue head on. The audience may feel uncomfortable, they may not want to hear the horrible things that are being discussed but surely a shout out loud is better than a whisper behind backs.

The Burton Taylor Studio, then, is perhaps a perfect venue for this play. With its not-quite darkness, and closely compacted seats, the will be no space for an audience to hide. This is not to say that the play isn’t an enjoyable watch as LaBute’s writing offers comedy as well as depth that Mashinkila’s clever directorial touches aid – whether it be the sly offering of chocolate or the dramatic dropping of a book.

The scene I was shown was the second scene in the play – a tense office scene where Tom is confronted by both his co-workers – Jeanie (Martha Reed) and Carter (Brian Chandrabose) – asking whether he is seeing someone. Even in this brief extract it is clear to see that the actors have thought a great deal about their dynamics and relationship. As an audience member, you already begin to question your sympathy when the bullied Tom in one interaction becomes spineless in another.

This play is what the best drama is – real people and real situations. Down to its uncomfortable dialogue, bitter sweet ending and comedic moments, this is a play you won’t want to miss.

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Notes from the Dressing Room

There are a few things in life you learn from your mother. Morals, unshakeable stubbornness, and how to make a meal out of two eggs and four tins of stockpiled, just-in-case-there’s-a-nuclear-fallout food are amongst them. My mother also taught me two other (arguably) valuable skills: namely, a mean left hook, and how to put a tape measure to the right nooks and crannies of the human body, and somehow come out of the end of the process with a wearable garment.

I got straight to putting one of my maternally-inherited talents to work this week, plunging into Michaelmas with gusto: at the first read-through for what promises to be one of the O’Reilly’s most sophisticated and raw Sondheim productions yet, 7th week’s ‘Assassins’. And no, that doesn’t mean I ended up lamping any diva-stropping actors (they’re a lovely bunch, and very down-to-earth, which is something that continues to surprise me about Oxford thesps); but it does mean I had to whip out my tape measure and swan around, Edith Head-style, explaining why I’m just different to any predecessors who might have been satisfied with a quick bulk-shop in Primark. I doubt I’ll ever actually need to know your “Body Rise” inches, but it makes me happier to know I have the distance between your waist and the biggest part of your bottom available in a spreadsheet… you know, just in case. You ask for an OCD dressmaker, you definitely get.

Costume Directing an Oxford production is a brilliantly multifaceted role, one that grapples with a number of necessities, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in theatre here who knows a thing or two about sartorial psychology (i.e. why we wear clothes, rather than just how we wear them – not too difficult to research, and some people have a knack for it, without needing to break out the Roland Barthes). For a start, it gives you an inside track on all the shenanigans going on in the glittery world of Oxford drama (who doesn’t want to know all the red curtain gossip?), and a means of perceiving how a production is put together without the added pressure of trying to harness the whole thing yourself straight away – great for people starting out in these intense climes! It’s also very creatively demanding and satisfying – but that doesn’t just mean pretty pictures of nice dresses; concept sketches are only the starting point.

After that, there’s measuring, sourcing the costumes, making some of the more specific garments (a sewing kit and machine are handy items to have around). And, of course, there are the wonderfully talented people you get to work with…in most cases, the wackier the better: for example, a certain director who rose to acclaim last year with a brilliant production of a John Ford play is returning to form and bringing some feathery friends along with him this time… although, luckily, I’m not required to make any costumes for the birds (at least, I hope not). That said, he does have me constructing animals in some fashion…

In any case, we’re not even a week into MT, but already the backstage corridors of Oxford’s luminous theatre world are raring to go. This morning saw a bleary-eyed coffee shop contingency of ‘West Side Story’ production team members putting together what promises to be the Playhouse production to see in Hilary, and I’ve already learned that concept sketch delivery is so much better when aided by superlative hot chocolate. With marshmallows. ‘Assassins’ sketches are currently midway through completion and scattered around my room, possibly where there should be critical editions of the works of Edmund Spenser instead, but hey – it’s not like the drama people here do degrees or anything. And I’m in the process of acquiring the sexiest sewing machine I can budget for, except the guy on the end of the John Lewis helpline doesn’t seem to care about the fact he’s dealing with a Playhouse costumier (ugh).

In the meantime, however, this is me over and out – I’m off to measure the cast of ‘Jersualem’ (which may just be the most fantastical and intense production to have ever held a fourth-week O’Reilly slot) while they do their photo-shoot. A little birdie (cough) tells me there’s some kind of nakedness going on for this shoot today; but one must remain professional when faced with this kind of thing. That, after all, is something else I learned from my mother. And she’s never wrong.

Until next time!

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Sneak peek: The Pillowman

What has resulted from days work at ‘The Pillowman’ is astounding. Lines learned and characters formed, this outstanding team is now looking at the several weeks they still have ahead as an opportunity to try on every possible version of their production and see which one fits best.

Thomas Bailey’s innovative direction is crafting ‘The Pillowman’ into something many believed it couldn’t be: a deeply moving and funny story. The play, written by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), has often been called ‘hollow’ or ‘empty’ for its seemingly pointless grotesque imagery and apparent lack of meaning. But if there was ever a team to bring ‘The Pillowman’ to life, it seems that this would be it.

Thomas is using a layering technique in rehearsals, which involves repeating a scene over and over, while giving each actor a new ‘point of concentration’ every time. By the end of the process, the actors should have built up a way to play the scene that incorporates all these different angles and emotions. This promises to open up the play to a new depth and clarity that may be what it has often lacked.

Claire Bowman (Katurian) reveals how Thomas is also ensuring that their characters feel authentic by making them play out various everyday scenarios in character, such as a Christmas dinner for her and Emma D’Arcy (Michal) to cement the sibling bond.

Thomas explains that he is using a gender blind cast merely for the sake of taking advantage of the fantastic female talent in Oxford. In such a small cast (traditionally of four male actors), there’s opportunity to hand pick the very best that Oxford has to offer – and that’s certainly what he’s done.

With a team of four of Oxford drama’s heavyweights, which also includes Jonathan Purkiss and Dominic Applewhite, ‘The Pillowman’ can’t go wrong – and the word team really is the most appropriate way to describe the group behind this particular production. They detail how the way to play each character was thought through by all individually and then set out as a group, as well as how comfortable and lucky they feel to be in such an encouraging environment.

Given how unusual it is for such a small student cast to hold a slot at The Oxford Playhouse, the decision to stage this production involved a high risk. However, with glorious talent, a phenomenal set, and utterly exceptional direction, ‘The Pillowman’ is looking to be one of the shows of this term.

Look forward to this very small team putting on a very big show.

‘The Pillowman’ plays at The Oxford Playhouse from 29 October to 1 November.

thepillowman.co.uk

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Preview: The Furies, by Aeschylus

An Oxonian institution worth celebrating, the triennial Oxford Greek Play is going strong. Following on in the footsteps of 2008’s ‘Agamemnon’ and 2011’s ‘Clytemnestra’, this year’s installment will complete Aeschylus’ trilogy with ‘The Furies’, under the directorship of Arabella Currie. Where 2011’s ‘Clytemnestra’ was unusually interpreted with elements of Japanese theatre,The ‘ Furies’ promises to renew Aeschylus’ play with a stark, tortured aesthetic. Director Arabella wants to strip the play down to its core, to see Aeschylus as “a painter and a musician”, vividly bringing out the colours and rhythms of his work. Although the visual elements of the production are not quite in place yet, (though talk of “oily” Furies and “metallic” Gods certainly piqued the imagination), it is easy to see just how central movement and rhythm are to this production.

Influenced by the strange sculptures of Henry Moore and the haunting paintings of Francis Bacon, the choreography of the Furies (the play’s chorus) is entrancing as they contort their bodies, crawl and squat on their haunches like wild animals (perhaps evoking the savagery of life in a society not knowing Athenian justice). During scenes in which they fade more into the background, the Furies still ebb and flow across the stage, a palpably menacing presence; as Orestes supplicates the Gods for forgiveness, the Furies gradually surround him, avatars of an inevitable fate.

The only presence which subdues them is Apollo’s – yet even he, supposedly an envoy of true justice, is subsumed by the bleak, macabre aesthetic, as he creepily caresses Orestes’ back and almost throttles the Furies to direct them to where he wants. In similar fashion, we watch the ghost of Clytemnestra emerge from a sort of plastic cocoon with jerky, robotic motions, which convey a whole world of torment and anger. A lot of work has clearly gone into this precise choreography, and indeed when speaking to the cast and director, we find out that to come up with ideas, they have not only watched and improvised from old mime videos and practised imitating predator and prey sequences from old David Attenborough documentaries, but even prepared for some rehearsals with yoga sessions!

Complimenting this fascinating choreography is an array of musical devices. Intermittent gusts of shrill string music, followed by staccato salvos of percussion, stretched the tension taut like a bowstring, while the chorus sections have been transformed into song, song which sounds darkly, perversely lyrical, yet is also contorted with strange angular intervals. One especially brilliant chorus section saw them alternating a breathless, panting a cappella of panic with a slow, dreamy interlude – similar contrasts abounded; the often joyous music jarred powerfully against the gruesome content of their verses. Composer Joseph Currie informs us that, in addition to this already rich range, there will be a semi-improvisational element in the ensemble playing.

The acting still has some way to go, but performance was pretty strong from all, with Hannah Marsters’ Clytemnestra and Jack Taylor’s commanding Apollo as standouts. Overall quality is astonishing for a play in ancient Greek in which half the cast don’t even study Classics! No matter how many rooms you put in your memory palace (apparently one cast member’s technique for learning lines), memorising that many words, which are essentially gibberish to you, is an incredible feat. Given how potent this half of a run-through was – without costumes, lighting, set (and everyone knowing their lines!) – we can only imagine how good this is going to be.

The Furies plays at the Oxford Playhouse from 15 October until 18 October.

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Lord of the Flies bringing anarchy to the O’Reilly?

Editorial note: the following preview is an expanded edit of Alice Strasburger’s virtuoso original piece. Upon reading Alice’s original, the Stage team decided that it was too bold and stylistically challenging to be appreciated by a student audience. We instead decided to publish a less fragmentary piece which tries to aid reader comprehension through the use of those staid old journalistic commonplaces, full sentences. If our effort falls short of the original, it is only because Alice’s preview is a work of the highest artistic merit, experimenting with literary form in a way not seen since Pound’s Pisan Cantos, and we apologise for what can only be called the desecration of a masterpiece.

I’d joined them as a critic. But 10 minutes in with cast of Lord of the Flies  and I was yelling and stamping too: such is the infectious energy of Dom Applewhite and his cast.  What will eventually erupt onto the stage of the O’Reilly in 3rd week, I am almost scared to behold.

This is a production truly in the spirit of the rabid original.  Using the only script of which William Golding approved, it manages to bring the ignorance of childhood and its blissful absence of adult grief into focus in much the same way as Golding’s novel did 60 years ago. Through only a small number of set-piece scenes it  asks what, if anything, childhood is for. Is it, as we are so often told, worth preserving, or an immaturity to be remedied by the emergence of children into a world of responsibility?

Lord of the Flies chronicles the lives of schoolboys stranded on a desert island following a plane crash. The play, just like the novel, uses this simple setup to place its characters under the microscope. It’s an intense play, so it’s a good thing that Screw the Looking Glass have found a cast up to the challenge. Misha Pinnington is enchanting as Ralph, the leader of the boys; Kit Owens as petulant, vulnerable Piggy; Georgia Bruce, demonic, as Jack, the catalyst and perpetrator of violence. Echoing Peter Brooke’s iconic adaption of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there will be a blank white set and minimal effects, clearing all distractions to allow the magic actor and narrative to do its work – no ply-board palm trees here.

More than any of these other aspects, it is the frisson and fitful fluidity of the ensemble cast that gives this production the dangerous edge that it needs to be convincing.  Doubtless that is because there is already an unusual and palpable sense of shared identity amongst them, and the director should be commended for fostering this without injecting – as the play’s characters do – too much anarchy and bloodthirst into rehearsals.  Together the cast convey a complete sense of child-like abandon, which is often coupled with a dangerous unpredictability. Much of the cast have the ability to change at a moment’s notice into something far more sinister.

Most of us have our enthusiasm for Lord of the Flies beaten out of us in GCSE, but if anything has the ability to make us forget our sardonic nonchalance, it’s this. Screw the Looking Glass’s adaptation will make clear the visceral power of the original story, and evoke the volatility of mob rule – it’s well worth your time.

Lord of the Flies is on at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre in 3rd Week, tickets from £6

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History Boys in Oxford: fetish or fun?

 

At only ten years old, The History Boys already holds an iconic place in British drama. Why?

think it’s because it’s just such a brilliantly written play, and that’s what has secured its place in the British canon. When it won the Olivier, I think that was almost purely on the basis of the quality of the writing. Of course, Nick Hytner did loads of great stuff with the original NT production, but in reading reviews and opinions of that production it’s the writing that comes up time and again. I think that’s partly our reason for doing it now, because we feel that the play, in its cemented position in the canon, is just slightly getting misread.

Has the accolade of “Nation’s Favourite Play” complicated putting it onstage? 

Yes it certainly has, it’s got such a fixed place in everyones memory. Maybe the easiest way to realise that is to look at how we think about the characters – when we think of Hector, we think of Richard Griffiths, especially if you’re coming to the play for the first time, having only seen the film or the NT version. But in a way, we like the way that it gives us a position where we can come with a fresh approach. It’s definitely something we’re doing, not quite as a reaction to previous productions, but as a way of re-imagining and trying to reshape the play on so many different levels. 

  So, the fact that it is apparently “the nation’s favourite” does makes things a little bit more difficult but ultimately, I think it’s been really useful as a touchstone for us in the way we’ve gone about rehearsals so far.

At  times, The History Boys  is screamingly funny – but it also tries to deal with some fairly heavy themes. How have you balanced these elements?

The play lends itself to quick changes in tone by flowing from scene to scene so easily – but that’s been a huge challenge as well, getting the pace right. If you read the script there’s no stage directions to help you manage your scene changes or anything like that. And that means that you can go from doing the famous hilarious French scene, to two pages later – which can be less than two minutes – then you’ve got a scene with Hector breaking down in front of people. The best way to go about achieving that is to be focused on the pace of the play. That’s been our focus – if we get the pace right, we’ll get the balance of the more emotional side of the play with the more humorous side.

Ten years on, the play remains topical and relevant to wider society and, of course, Oxford in particular. Has it raised difficult questions?

Yes, for sure – the issue is that it has, to some people, seemed a little self-serving for a bunch of Oxford undergraduates to stage a play about getting into Oxford. We just want to say that the play doesn’t idealise Oxford in any way. James Fennemore used the term “fetishizing Oxford”, but I disagree with that. I think it asks us to challenge why people hold Oxford up on a pedestal. Does the fact that Irwin lied about going to Oxford spoil our opinion of him? I don’t think so; I think we’re meant to realise that great people don’t necessarily come from Oxford or Cambridge. So it challenges that view more than anything else. Which, again, is a important thing for the undergraduates that are going to be watching the play, and the undergraduates that are in the play. It’s a difficult conversation to have, but I think it’s one that’s worth having. 

The History Boys runs at the Oxford Playhouse fromWednesday-Saturday of 1st week. Tickets start at £11 

 

 

 

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