Interrogation room

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.


Alecky B mug shot

Interview Alecky Blythe: ‘I’m interested in ordinary people in extraordinary situations’

Alice Troy-Donovan chats to Alecky Blythe about verbatim plays, the London Riots, and the ubiquity of three pound cappucinos.

Alecky Blythe’s show London Road first appeared at the National Theatre in 2011, returning the following year due to popular demand. It brought Alecky and her innovative ‘verbatim’ methods to the forefront of British theatre. She founded ‘Recorded Delivery’, which creates plays using verbatim techniques, in 2003.

I met up with her in the Almeida Theatre during the run of her latest show Little Revolution, which explores the impact of the 2011 London Riots on a small community in Hackney, East London, using verbatim accounts from local residents.

How does verbatim theatre work?

Verbatim theatre is theatre created from real-life conversations. There are different levels of it, and I would put myself at the most extreme, purest end: nothing in any of my work has been fictionalised or made up in terms of what is said.

On the other hand, someone like David Hare, who has also used verbatim techniques, works at the looser end of the spectrum to me. Sometimes context or action is changed in my plays, but the actual words are the words said by those real-life people. I then edit those conversations and during the show the actors speak those real words.

Traditionally in verbatim theatre, and in London Road and all my shows, the actors wear ear phones during the performance and copy the exact words of those interviewees [the ‘recorded delivery’ technique]. The idea of the earphones is to stop them from falling into their own speech patterns – they copy every ‘um’ ‘ah’ and stutter, every non-sequiter.

Why do you think you’re on the ‘purest’ end of the verbatim spectrum?

For me the advantage is the authenticity, which is first and foremost – I would find it difficult to write with that kind of truth and honesty. To me pure verbatim theatre is brilliant, joyful, and illuminating. There are frustrations with it – I find myself thinking ‘oh, gosh, if only they’d said that’, when things don’t link into the narrative. I’m at the mercy of what they say.

How central is the ‘recorded delivery’ technique to your performances? Do you think people come to watch for the story or the unusual method?

The plays are a combination of the technique and a good story. Up until my first show, Come up Eli, I’d worked on group projects: I’d take a theme like ‘love’ and go and interview people about it. The pieces were anecdotal – lots of talking heads, no narrative through line. It was just lots of funny different stories – very much about the technique.

Once my project was on ‘fear’ – there was a siege going on up the road from where I lived in Hackney . I had unwittingly walked into a story. I had, not by design, captured it – beginning, middle, and end. That project really put the technique out there purely because it had a story.

How do actors cope with adapting to the ‘recorded delivery’ technique?

People often ask what kind of actors you need for verbatim theatre and I say, just good actors. The performance is all plotted out for the actors: they’ve got to laugh there, do a sigh there – they have to, because it’s in the tapes. However, it takes more than just being a good mimic: if there’s a laugh, the laugh has got to be sprung, it’s got to be connected. It’s got to be felt. In a way they can’t control their emotions because they’re at the mercy of the tape.

It’s a very weird thing to think you can actually speak and listen at the same time, but most actors realise they can do it, despite being white with fear when I first introduce them to it in the rehearsal process. It’s harder with actors who have made a name for themselves and want to deliver a line in their own way to get a laugh or a certain reaction, when in fact I want them to deliver it exactly as it sounds on the tape. There’s something very liberating about giving yourself up to the tape and there’s less room in your head for actors’ thoughts like ‘oh that was really crap’. As soon as you start thinking about that you’ve missed the next line. Actors really love it – it can really lead to very ‘in the moment’ acting.

Do you see your verbatim method as a kind of reporting, like an alternative news gathering tool?

Yes, in a way it is. Although I would always say that I’m a dramatist before a journalist; it would be wrong and breaking all sorts of journalistic rules if people were to take too many factual things from my plays.

I do manipulate the material and there’s always the challenge of getting the balance between being faithful to these interviewees and thinking in dramatic terms. For that reason I always say when I’m interviewing people that I work in quite a journalistic way but it’s not, first, journalism.

You said in a recent interview that your area in East London is being overrun with ‘coffee shops selling cappuccinos for £3’, and that your show highlights the gap that has emerged between rich and poor. Do you see evidence of this divide in the demographic of your audiences?

I think the best audience we can hope for is not all three-pound-cappuccino drinkers but a mixed audience. These things take years and years to reach a wider audience. The best shows are when the audience reflects the cast we have on stage. I think Little Revolution went over my parents’ heads: ‘you don’t get voices like that in Suffolk’.

Do your plays have a social goal?

I suppose they do. They’re political with a small ‘p’ – I’m interested in the human experience more than why something happened, for instance the reason for the London Riots. I’m interested in ordinary people in extraordinary situations, because that’s when we really reveal our true colours.

You had to put yourself in some risky situations whilst interviewing for your play Little Revolution. Do you think verbatim theatre is revolutionising the concept of the playwright, out on the front-line rather than tucked away in a study?

Sometimes when I meet people they say ‘Oh, I didn’t expect you to look like that’. People think that playwrights are nerdy and introspective, but actually you have to be very bright if you’re going to get people to talk to you. I seem to slip into an interviewer persona in trying to get people to talk to me. I try to create an environment in which people don’t feel they’ll be judged and feel at ease.

You’re making a film of London Road, aren’t you?

Yes, it’s written and shot already. The film is much more active than the show of London Road; the first thing the producers told me was: ‘You don’t have long conversations in film Alecky – it’s all action, action, action’. So I had to kill lots of babies and make it very active. It still has a sort of theatrical quality – sort of like a documentary.

What do you think of other recent verbatim theatre?

I think the one that really stood out for me was The Permanent Way by David Hare, which came out around the same time that I was making my first play. I think what was exciting about it was that Hare didn’t know where he was going with it when he started. I think those are the interesting ones, rather than somebody waving their political agenda and stamping their opinion all over it. It’s much more interesting to go in not knowing – you discover it as you journey through, and allow all those voices to speak.

Alecky Blythe’s film London Road will be out next spring

PHOTO/Idil Sukan

Blind Hamlet

Interview Ramin Gray: “There is some delicious irony in turning up without any actors”

After a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe, Ramin Gray’s production of Blind Hamlet is now touring around Europe. The play that uses audience participation, no actors and audio recordings of the writer, Nassim Soleimanpour, has been called a “ground-breaking” piece of theatre.

As a linguist yourself, having read Arabic and Persian at Oxford, and, of course, the internationality of this particular production, how has learning languages affected you in the theatre?

Well, every play is like learning a new language in the sense that you have to pick up an ear for the tone, the weight, the value, and the meaning that is encoded in the language the writer uses. It is revelatory hearing writers speak in their own language because you really hear what they intend. When writers read their work, they give them a spin and a twist and a real sense of humour. That I find invaluable.

If I lost my eyesight, I would probably still turn up to rehearsals, but if I couldn’t hear, then it would be very difficult for me.

In relation to previous plays you have worked on with the ‘Actors Touring Company’, what is new or different about Blind Hamlet?

As the name suggests, we normally tour around the world with actors, putting on plays. But with this one, one of the curious things was what would it be like to have a play with no actors. There is a stage manager, and that’s it. It literally depends on who’s there, which, by the way, is the first line of Hamlet: “Who’s there?” And the challenge in the team was to find a way to inveigle the audience to participate. And that, formally, is very difficult to achieve.

I just worked with Nassim on recording his voice. There is some delicious irony in turning up without any actors.

What is it like working with Nassim? What was it that made you want to work with him?

Some people think it really works well and some people think it’s a bit of a botched failure. Nassim has got a certain degree of self-confidence and you could say, stubbornness. There is something about writers, all artists; they have got to have a core of bloody mindedness and self-confidence. That core of stubbornness is really important, because the process of making any art is very difficult. You need strength in yourself to push through to get to the conclusion.

Why should people go and watch this play?

I think for Oxford students in particular, it is very interesting to get the perspective of a young Iranian playwright having a go and trying to attack or challenge the norms of drama, of how plays are and can be made. So I think it is formally very innovative and inventive, whilst referencing people like Samuel Beckett and Shakespeare. What you will experience is a sort of message in a bottle… from Iran. It touches on themes in literature and ‘Game Theory’.

We tour a lot of university towns in the country, and I am often shocked that in these towns, how few of the drama students come to see the work. I think that at Oxford and Cambridge, because drama is very much cherished, there is a completely different relationship with theatre.

With such an abstract piece, there are bound to be a lot of open interpretations. What would you want your audience to come out of the theatre thinking? 

I think it all depends on if you participate imaginatively and go with it and see where it takes you. Not necessarily joining in actively, but I do mean imaginatively, and not just sit back passively. The other thing is if you get picked to be on stage, you will get a very different perspective of the play than if you were to just view it from the audience. I want the audience to be entertained and have fun, to come in with openness and wanting to join in.

There is a sense of parallel between the writer losing his vision and the idea of a blind Hamlet, isn’t there?

Well… Aspects of Hamlet, perhaps. Hamlet speaks to us all, or it would not be the world’s most famous play. We find ourselves in that moment of vacillation, existential questioning, disconbobulation, savage irony, and black humour… But you certainly do not need to know the play to participate. Just because a play has the word “Hamlet” in it, doesn’t mean it has to be the Hamlet, there are other reasons…

There are nevertheless all sorts of echoes between the two: the relationship of the stage manager to the tape-recorded voice is not unlike the relationship of Horatio to Hamlet. Or the fact that there is a voice, a dead thing, coming back is obviously like the ghostly and disembodied voice of King Hamlet. This is after all the thing that kicked off the whole magnificence of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There are indeed many parallels if you know Hamlet really well, but if you do not, that is fine too.

What is the aesthetic you are going for in this piece?

It is something that I particularly like, something that is very simple and pared-down. Only strictly speaking what is necessary, because the thing that you see on stage that you don’t normally see is people drawn from the audience. We just made a very simple space for that to happen, and it’s rather elegant, don’t you think?

You have been described as “ground-breaking”; the play has no actors but just a stage manager to set up the Dictaphone, and has been described as “boundary-pushing”, “original” and “experimental”. Do you think the concept of theatre is revolutionising in the modern age and how do you see the future of the theatre?

When I started doing plays some thirty years ago, I was obsessed with creating a reality in the rehearsal room, and I was always very disappointed because I tried to carry that through onto the stage, and then got even more depressed when the audience came and it failed to materialise. Since then, I have realised I was looking in the wrong place. The play doesn’t happen on stage, the play is really happening in the auditorium, in the head, the heart and the body of the audience. So, I come to the idea of investigating the audience, and putting them on stage; I see that as a logical development of my own thinking.

Theatre is always going to be about people in a shared space, interacting with each other. I think one of the reasons maybe theatre is anything gaining in popularity, and certainly not waning in any way, is because the more time one spends on the tablet or the telephone, the more one appreciates the physicality, the reality, the challenge, the grittiness, and the importance of interacting with fellow human beings in a shared space. And that is what it’s all about.

Blind Hamlet is playing at Cambridge Junction on 8th October and Lincoln Performing Arts Centre on 9th October

PHOTO/David Levine


His Dark Materials

Back to unreality: fantasy literature staged at O’Reilly

What defines the fantasy genre? Generally, what happens within the pages of such books is impossible, and closing the book returns us to a different and more straightforward world.

Fantasy stories travel, spanning whole worlds (sometimes crossing into more than one) and hurtling through time. And the characters: they’re rarely familiar and true to life (“my auntie always gets like that during family dinners”) but instead stretch the imagination (“my auntie always rides her unicorn like that”). A talking bear whose soul is intertwined with his armour, or a stubbornly loyal piece of luggage that stalks its owner through the Discworld.

If you move beyond the normal worries of ‘the wrong casting’, any character can be easily brought to life on screen. A point in time and space can be realised by good VFX or location shoots. Middle Earth is found in the tree-green mountains of New Zealand where Andy Serkis capered in a lime green suit. You can adapt any book with ease in the cinema. The stage is a very different beast – and one that’s physically present rather than imagined.

The challenges of putting a much-loved book on stage can be solved by perseverance and ingenuity. To adapt a more ambitious novel– one that leaps places and periods and involves a cast of characters you’d never find in everyday life – is a labour of love.

For the team behind His Dark Materials: Part One, running in 5th week at the Keble O’Reilly, love of the original novels is exactly what drives the project. I remember the books for bears and pine martens and tearing open the Aurora. His Dark Materials, using the script first performed at the National, will rely on costumed actors, puppets and a fast pace to ultimately split open the universe on the O’Reilly stage.

In contrast, Orlando comes to the O’Reilly in 6th week, relating Virginia Woolf’s 800-page ‘biography’ of a fantastic figure who lives for five hundred years and changes gender partway through. Orlando is often considered to be one of Woolf’s masterpieces, for its powerful exploration of gender through time as well as its ambitious sweep of history. To match Woolf’s gliding movement through time, the production is consciously theatrical: the storyline conveyed through a chorus surrounding Orlando, and the changing settings by projection and costume.

English students helm both productions, but the stories they tell are childhood favourites or literary masterpieces. If you’ve never got round to reading the book, head to the O’Reilly in 5th or 6th week and sample some of England’s greatest literature and its impossible words brought to life on stage.


PHOTO/Peculiar Spectacles


All the world’s a stage for Globe’s international tour

For Dominic Dromgoole’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the infamous proclamation by Shakespeare that ‘All the world’s a stage’, seems fittingly appropriate. The play which has been performed at Shakespeare’s Globe, London for the past five months is upping sticks for Asia, moving on to Russia later in the year. Although The Globe, the brainchild of American actor and producer Sam Wanamaker, has been a UK touring company for some 17 years, it is the first time the company will have undertaken such a far-reaching tour.

Wanamaker’s ambition for The Globe was to unite Shakespeare’s plays with a theatrical experience replicating that of Jacobean England as closely as possible. The staging is faithful to contemporary Jacobean capabilities meaning that no spotlights or sound amplification is used, instead relying on natural lighting, live music and the vocal projection skills of the actors. Such simplistic production not only enhances the atmosphere, but gives the company greater freedom over where they can perform, enabling parks and outdoor areas to be potential performance spaces. Yet while Wanamaker’s philosophy of authenticity may be easily adhered to in the company’s London home, inevitably compromises could be expected once the tour visits unfamiliar theatres across the actual globe.

However, regardless of location, Director Dromgoole is keen to maintain the unique experience of a Globe production. Designer Jonathan Fensom has purposefully created an imitation of the Globe’s own stage as the core body of the Midsummer Night’s Dream set in order to accommodate this. The staging mimics the Globe’s Italianate mock-marble columns and symmetrical, three-exit composition, although Fensom departs from the play’s Greek setting, translating its Renaissance aesthetic into an Elizabethan English country manor, “such as Charlecote House in Warwickshire”. This is achieved by mirroring chandeliers and a portrait above the mantle of Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey, after whom Shakespeare’s “Lord Chamberlain’s Player’s” were named, and for whose granddaughter’s wedding A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written. This reference shows the importance given by Dromgoole to the theme of marriage and relationships. This is not only a focus of the play but also of the actors, who strive to establish a relationship with their audience. Traditionally, the ‘groundlings’ who stood throughout the performance would yell replies to the actors’ speeches, akin to a pantomime. While modern audiences are seated, and for the most part quiet, Associate Director Joe Murphy hopes that overseas, the actors and audience will be “complicit in the story together”.

“For many of the Asian and Russian audiences, this tour will enable them to actually experience the play for the first time”

The dedication to Henry Carey demonstrates the company’s attempt to incorporate the play’s ancestry, as if the production is aiming for the play’s 16th-century roots, ignoring more recent interpretations. As such, the design is stimulated by the words of the play itself, rather than a post-dated reading. For instance, the aesthetic of the forest scenes is inspired by the lines “And then the moon, like to a silver bow | New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night | Of our solemnities”. Fensom uses the appearance of the moon to inform the look of the entire fairy realm.

An effective forest backdrop can be a tricky thing to make convincing- in many productions of the play the forest has appeared as a Christmas grotto. Thankfully, such unsubtlety is not present in Dromgoole’s version. Rather, the concept of moonlight informs the appearance of two luminescent grey curtains which run across the width of the stage, acting as the forest scenery. The background is designed to give an ethereal, slightly otherworldly ambience ‘like going to the moon’, Fensom claims. Three slits in this backdrop allow actors to seemingly appear or disappear spontaneously. The faerie world aims to be unsettling- its proximity to, yet disparity from that of the humans is meant to unnerve the audience. Furthermore, while the human characters are costumed in standard Renaissance-type dress, the faerie costumes rebel against the “19th-century, gossamer-wing-type” convention seen in so many other productions. Inspired by taxidermy and mystical creatures, the appearance of the faeries is intended to reflect their original representation as feral miscreants, whose animalistic natures juxtapose the beauty with which they sing. In Dromgoole’s conception, Bottom is not the only character with a creature’s head.

While Assistant Director Joe Murphy claims that “Theatre people exist everywhere, and they’re kind of all the same”, just as A Midsummer Night’s Dream is divided among three worlds, this tour has a wider appeal for three distinct kinds of “theatre people”. For a literature student, Dromgoole’s interpretation is interesting in its attempt to faithfully recreate the original wildness of Shakespeare’s play through its aesthetic. For many of the Asian and Russian audiences, this tour- with its on screen subtitles- will enable them to actually experience the play for the first time. Similarly, Brendan O’Hea (who plays Quince) claims the company is excitedly anticipating the tour, as it gives the actors the opportunity “to discover [the play] for the first time again”.


Learning to act can help you in any profession

Why would professionals outside the theatre need acting classes? A university degree is meant to prepare you for the workplace, but whilst we students learn to express ourselves well on paper, we often don’t learn to discuss things orally. At Oxford we’re lucky to have a tutorial system that does help with this, but there is still a focus on written work over speaking aloud and debate. Moreover, there is a large difference between explaining your opinion to 2 or 3 people in a tute and giving a presentation in front of a large room in a professional environment.

Two renowned organisations seem to have recognised this difference: both the Young Vic and RADA currently offer courses for professionals. The idea is that they teach acting techniques that can be transferred into a professional environment to aid with teamwork, leadership and general communication skills. Corporations including Barclays Capital and HSBC pay for their employees to attend these courses so they can develop this skill set.

The sessions aim to use acting exercises to help people to present themselves in a more positive and confident way. They focus on both verbal and non-verbal communication and the importance of using both effectively. When standing in front of a group, many people show their nerves through their body language; they often try to physically make themselves smaller or they try to touch their faces in an effort to hide themselves. Like professionals going into a meeting, the actors who run the sessions at the Young Vic say they feel nervous before going on stage; the difference is that they have learnt to hide it. They have learnt to present themselves in a more positive way which helps them gain confidence and feel more comfortable. This skill is valuable almost anywhere and helps people to express themselves well. Appearing confident enables you to hold the attention of your audience. Independent of the content of their speech, people who speak well are more likely to get a positive response.

Vocal exercises highlight the importance of taking pauses when speaking. In order to do this, you just need to have (or pretend to have) the confidence to feel comfortable with the silences. The actors show how pauses engage the attention of a room and make the content clearer to the audience. It may seem unnatural at first, but pausing adds weight to your ideas that are worth the extra time taken to articulate them.

Like these course leaders, psychologist Amy Cuddy has emphasised the impact body language can have. Cuddy has found that if you act more confidently you can feel more confident. Her research shows that adopting a more powerful, larger stance increases testosterone levels and decreases cortisol (a stress hormone) levels so that you feel less stressed and more powerful. Her catch phrase is to ‘fake it until you become it’, meaning that you can present yourself in a confident way even if you don’t feel like it and over time, you will become more confident and not need to ‘fake it’ anymore.

These skills that enable people to speak eloquently in intimidating situations are not being taught in schools and higher education establishments. How you present yourself is a huge part of how your character develops and yet this is largely ignored as schools strive for academic success. The only way to ensure that these skills are taught in schools would be to have them examined. In France they have done just that as there are both oral and written components to the ‘Bac’ (A level equivalent) exams. Students are taught how to articulate ideas and practise debating which means all pupils gain valuable communication skills for their later lives. The oral exams recognise the importance of spoken expression and also prepare students for the workplace as they learn how to skilfully adopt a formal tone of voice.

At Oxford we may not have oral exams but we do have the opportunity to practise these formal communication skills in tutorials. There are countless plays each term and societies that require student leaders to speak in front of larger groups. Being aware of your body language can help you in both academic and social situations. You can train yourself to gain confidence when talking to someone new by adopting a larger stance, and in tutes, trying to sit on the edge of your seat to make you look, and therefore feel, more alert and involved in discussions. As one Oxford student succinctly put it, using acting skills in tutorials shows the ‘same content, just expressed well’.

So why not try Amy Cuddy’s advice and try and fake confidence in a daunting environment? Whether you feign confidence in a tutorial or start acting in plays, the ability to manipulate your body language enables you to influence how you are perceived. It’s a skill applicable to all interactions.

The Oxford Student

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