Reviews

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“Frenzying, Maddening”: The Oxford Greek Play

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As light coaxes the scene into visibility, a man drags himself across the front of the stage. Behind him is an enormous extension of plastic, part-dangling placenta, part-distorted womb, part-shackling net. One is reminded of Atlas and the earth that it is his destiny to shoulder. Inside the plastic is a body. Soon we will realise that it is the man’s dead mother, and that it is he who has killed her.

So opens the triennial Oxford Greek Play, which brings the final part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, The Eumenides (otherwise known as The Furies) to the Oxford Playhouse. Entirely in ancient Greek, with English subtitles, the Oxford Greek Play has a well-deserved reputation for extreme difficulty in conception and for excellence in realisation. The Furies, directed by Arabella Currie, does not disappoint.

The play is a masterful rendering of Aeschylus, with an innovative artistic interpretation that enables the language—the evocative revival of which is the whole point of the Oxford Greek Play—to kindle forcefully a sense of the power and range of its meaning.

Orestes has killed his mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge the death of his father, Agamemnon, murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover upon his glorious victory return from Troy. The Furies want vengeance and have sworn to plague Orestes beyond the grave for having murdered his kin. While The Oresteia is famous for its exploration of justice, what this production brings out is its artistry.

Currie’s play makes manifest the horror of Orestes’ experience, showcasing the sheer range of the resources of drama with obvious commitment, passion and talent. The hideousness of the Furies, for instance, is evident in every aspect: their shrieks, their movement, their number, their pleas and accusations and curses, even their song.

And that omits the most important of all: their words. For it is the achievement in language in this production that especially compels attention. In one of the earlier scenes, Clytemnestra exhorts the sleeping Furies to avenge her death. Frightfully she urges them to curse and quell her son. Her emphatic insistence on the way that Orestes is ‘laughing at you’ awakens the Eumenides, forcing them into a response that is already for them a kind of torture, recalling them to their fate as ‘daughters of the night’, foul and frenzied beings that are neither human nor god, and fit only for the most inhuman and ungodly vengeance.

Quite how consummate has been Currie’s direction and how complete her attention to the production is indicated by the link between Clytemnestra’s reference to the ‘tightest net’ of guilt, from which she claims Orestes has escaped, and the image with which the play begins. The mention of ‘net’ recalls the visual imprint marked in the opening scene, that of Orestes dragging his mother’s corpse in plastic behind him. It is clear that the net is something he has not escaped, whether or not the Furies continue to follow him. This makes the mother’s relishing of the prospect of her son’s punishment all the more awful: ‘I am Clytemnestra, calling to you’, she shrieks at the Furies. And, worse: ‘What are you for, except to do evil?’

The torturous imagery of the language is told in good characters as well as bad. Apollo, wonderfully played by Jack Taylor, wreaks cursing words on the Furies that are almost as devastating as those they hail on Orestes. He is merciless, objurgating them even for their presence amidst ‘prophetic walls’, which ‘it is wrong for you to touch’, as they belong only in the hell-place where ‘murder is justice’. He tells them to ‘vomit those clots you slurp from slaughter’. Let no one accuse Aeschylus of writing only didactically.

Instructive though the interrogation of justice certainly is, above all it is language that holds the key to those who adhere to or deviate from it. Hearing the Greek and seeing the English, words from two and a half millennia ago, only makes this clearer. While the Furies chant a death-song over their victim, revelling in its ‘frenzying, maddening, mind-sickening’ qualities, Apollo advocates the ‘ice cold thrust of the public whip’.

It is Athena who is able to conciliate Apollo and clear Orestes; most importantly, though, it is she who can bring a justice to the Furies that is also merciful. The building of music at the end and a slow shifting of the set from red to white present strikingly the creation of a new order of justice. The reign of the Furies, whose ‘hymn [is] to bind the soul lyreless, man-withering’, is at an end, along with the horrors of their language. Currie makes this point even more forcefully by having the voices of the Furies change along with their demeanour at the play’s close.

This is an astonishing feat. You don’t need to know Aeschylus. You don’t need to know Greek. Just go and see this year’s Oxford Greek Play.

The Furies runs at The Oxford Playhouse until 18th October

PHOTO/Duncan Cornish

 

the corner shop
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Falling for The Bard: Shakespeare in Love finds its home in West End

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It seems fitting that the 1998 film, Shakespeare in Love – a joyous celebration of all things theatrical – has finally moved to the stage, which is surely its natural home.

Lee Hall’s adaptation of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay, while not a radical departure,does bring to the fore many themes that are perhaps less immediately evident in the film. Though still a romance, Shakespeare in Love the play is also a historical drama and an insight into the world of actors, and the often precarious, occasionally chaotic circumstances in which they find themselves.

Writers, and the relationships between them, are brought to life through the characters of Marlowe and Shakespeare. Hall gives Marlowe (played with panache by David Oakes) a much bigger role in his script, and while keeping the running joke that Will has a habit of nicking Kit’s poetry and plots, this is developed into both a thoughtful examination of artistic influence and exchange, and a portrayal of the brotherly friendship between the successful first man among us (Marlowe) and the struggling young upstart (Shakespeare).

Indeed it is refreshing to see The Bard as a man before he became a myth. With frequent winks and nods, the play and the actors both exploit the comic irony, inviting the audience to laugh along with them knowingly. Even more so than the film, the play abounds in Shakespearean allusions, and Twelfth Night casts an especially long shadow, with all of the songs and even bits of dialogue lifted directly from it.

But the self-awareness that permeates the action does sometimes lead to over-acting verging on the hammy. The play truly comes into its own near the end of the second half, with Shakespeare’s troupe giving the first ever performance of Romeo and Juliet. Here, actors, script and Nick Ormerod’s simple yet stunning set work together beautifully to create a compelling and utterly convincing evocation of an Elizabethan playhouse. The theatre setting in this case undoubtedly trumps the film, as we the audience become the audience of 1593, made to feel an essential part of the action; the theatre is shown to be a community, an arena for actors, writers, and audience alike.

And this is the real triumph of the night. You leave the performance with a renewed enthusiasm for what the theatre can achieve, and a renewed love for Shakespeare, too. Not because he is venerated or mythologised, but because of the opposite – because we are allowed to see him as a flawed human being, a human being who struggles to pay his way, steals his ideas from the cleverer kid and, of course, falls in love.

Shakespeare in Love is playing at Noël Coward Theatre, London until summer 2015

PHOTO/The Corner Shop

Rachel Ashwanden as Rebekah
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Review: Conscientious

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Pillbox Theatre’s debut play Conscientious recounts a young professional’s experience of life in the office and the drama’s that come with it. Largely set in her workplace, this one-woman show provides a moving account of her experience of office bullying and her struggle to survive.

Rebekah (Rachel Ashwanden) is a fresh-faced and motivated university graduate on an office grad scheme whose all-time hero is her great grandfather, a conscientious objector in WWI. The play relates the bravery of conscientious objectors in WW1 to the difficulty of standing up for our principles in the modern day world. As the writer’s foreword says ‘it’s a play which asks more questions than it answers’ and leaves you questioning the use of personal values in daily life.

Rachel Ashwanden is impressive and, although alone, keeps the audience engaged throughout. Light relief is provided by candid jokes and musical interludes which break the play up into episodes. Although the music is sometimes a little jolted when replayed, it gives some useful time for reflection after particularly dramatic moments.

The simple yet versatile set is used to great effect; it is constantly helping to convey and illustrate the protagonist’s emotions. Seeing someone appear so downtrodden on stage moves the audience, especially in such a relatable situation.

Although the play is generally well executed, the actress’s image, especially her make-up, is somewhat puzzling. Given that it’s not addressed in any way, it can at times distract from the story she is recounting.

Conscientious is overall a very thought-provoking and moving production. Having learnt about the plight of conscientious objectors at school, it is interesting for an audience to see these experiences related to the present day.

A potential alternative to a wild night out, Conscientious, though not the lightest of plays, will certainly spark a good discussion afterwards.

Conscientious is now on tour until early December. For dates see: http://conscientioustheatre.wordpress.com/tour-dates/

 

Wingman
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Review: Wingman

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Fresh from the Fringe, Wingman calls itself a ‘new father-son comedy’. It’s a moving piece detailing complicated family dynamics and the potential for forgiveness: the awkward son (Richard Marsh) finds that his mother has passed away, only to be left with his estranged father (Jerome Wright) who hopes to use the funeral and general aftermath to reconcile their friendship. His advances are unsubtle and initially unwanted but when unexpected fatherhood presents itself their relationship takes some unexpected turns.

The narrative is in spoken word, a form of delivery that adapts to the change in plot in a way that is moving; clearly the writers are in command of their material. It adds a satisfying rhythm to the story that is recounted and renders the show more original. A smart use of props combined with flawless acting ensures that the execution of the script is slick.

This piece is enjoyable but it came up against the difficulty of basing comedy on a more sober subject matter: the people around me did chuckle but left looking a little misty eyed too. Whilst I like that comedy can have some more serious weight to it, this piece blurs genres in a way that isn’t necessarily satisfying. Is it comedy if I left feeling sad?

Nevertheless this is a wittily written piece even if some of the jokes hit a little too close to home. The characters find themselves in numerous laughable situations and use comedy to hide greater feelings with a touching effect. As a comedy the show misses the mark but as a short drama it is an uplifting and thought-provoking piece.

Wingman is touring until the 20th October   http://richmarsh.wordpress.com/gigs-list/

PHOTO/Richard Marsh

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Review: Ballyturk

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Directed by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, Ballyturk is a frantic philosophical drama about two men – Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi – leading a somewhat hysterical existence. At least for the first thirty minutes it is, as the National Theatre describes, ‘gut wrenchingly funny’.

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Teh Internet is Serious Business
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Review: Teh Internet Is Serious Business

 

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The morning after I saw Tim Price’s new play, Teh Internet Is Serious Business, I logged onto the Internet as I do nearly every day and – nothing had changed. Price’s latest offering is a bold experiment, but one which left me with little more than a sugary aftertaste: it simply wasn’t serious enough to make the threat of Internet hacktivism tangible.

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