Stage

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Review: Our Country’s Good

 

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The sharp, splitting crack of a whip electrifies the audience, ripping through the cool wash of silence. We are transported immediately from the comfort of the Keble O’Reilly to a penal colony in Australia – the year is 1789.

Our Country’s Good is a production from which you cannot tear your eyes away – it is utterly captivating in plot, characterisation and execution. One by one, we become familiar with the characters as they trickle into the forefront of the action. The story is centred on the suggestion by plucky young officer Lieutenant Clark to stage a play in which the convicts will act. And so the plot unfolds: enacting a punchy engagement with questions of justice, civilisation and morality through an intense, anthropological lens.

The audience is sunk to the same level as the stage and the bare wooden set seems a fitting backdrop from which the raw, bleak existence of the convicts and their officers is carefully embroidered. We are thrust into a time and place saturated in the melancholic solitude of homesickness, dense and almost tangible as a result of the wholly convincing and fleshy portrayals of each character.

The accents and voices are crisp and throw us deep into the epicentre of personal laments and expressions of desperation which cultivate a truly immersive atmosphere. We experience the occasional and soulful songs of some of the convicts which almost paralyse in their riveting yet beautiful nature. The clarity of voice and lyric plunges the audience into the harrowing solitude, guilt and pain of the colony: we remain mere spectators no longer.

Every utterance and movement of each character seems carried out with a microscopic precision and becomes wholly mesmerising, the actors managing seemingly effortlessly to embody the dehumanised, almost animalistic, behaviour of some of the convicts, only to transition to encapsulate the pompous, stoic and well-spoken figures of authority as smoothly as they slip on their red uniforms.

The play manages to achieve moments of great pain and despair intermittently interrupted by bursts and scenes of intense hilarity injected into the plot by the superb comic interplay of Lieutenant Clark and the convicts. The spectacle is peppered with moments of touching warmth and intimacy in its wholly convincing portrayal of the rejuvenation and re-humanisation of the convicts through the efforts of Lieutenant Clark and the play he organises.

The satire woven into the depiction of colonial authority is subtle yet sharp, yet nothing is exaggerated or overdone, despite it being an easy temptation.

An utterly fascinating spectacle.

Our Country’s Good is playing at The Keble O’Reilly Theatre until 1st November
PHOTO/Keble O’Reilly publicity

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Review: Esarhaddon, The Substitute King

 

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Slumped on his throne, dishevelled head raised and haunted eyes surveying the scene, Thomas Lodge creates a commanding portrait of a rapidly deteriorating monarch. As the newest addition to his court, exorcist Damqi, professes loyalty to Esarhaddon the audience are inducted into the ancient world of Assyria.

Following many of the conventions for classical tragedy, playwright Selena Wisnom’s background in Babylonian poetry lends an authenticity to the affair. Reviving characters from the annals of history, Wisnom reimagines the 680 – 669 BC saga of Esarhaddon and his mother Naqia. Bringing to the forefront Naqia’s unprecedented authority, the play emphasises the power of women in past as well in the present (due to the gender-blind casting of Sarah Wright as Damqi).

Through Damqi’s eyes we learn the ritual of the substitute king. An ordinary man must act as Esarhaddon for one hundred days before dying in his stead. Purportedly the only way to alleviate the true king’s suffering and save his kingdom, the sacrifice involved ought to be extremely emotive. Unfortunately the denouement is almost too obvious.

Despite the historically fascinating premise, the innumerable lengthy soliloquies are not quite enough to sustain interest. The Chorus remains rather detached and unconvincing whilst anachronistically lighting incense sticks with a box of Cook’s Matches.

However, Jacob Mercer’s disgruntled physician coupled with loyal scholar Balasi (Soham Bandyopadhyay) are a striking duo. Navigating the Assyrian Court, they remind the audience of the human warmth that lies beneath court politics as well as the disastrous ends that can befall a man riddled with jealousy.

Perhaps a few more slips than are forgivable and a conclusion that lacks dramatic power – Esarhaddon: The Substitute King leaves the audience slightly dissatisfied because it has such potential. The show’s saving grace is undoubtedly Lodge’s masterful portrayal of an honourable king, forsaken by the gods he worships. Esarhaddon’s physical deterioration is convincing and compelling, his mercy and desire to trust are fully-realised in a touching performance.

Maybe a little too niche and unintentionally alienating for the casual theatregoer, the play is nevertheless a fascinating example of classical tragic modes and a stimulating introduction to an otherwise obscure ancient Assyrian world.

Throughout the intrigue, family politics and elaborate rituals it is Esarhaddon who, rightly, commands the spotlight.

Esarhaddon: The Substitute King is playing at The Simpkins Lee Theatre, LMH, until 1st November

 

IMAGE/Elyn Vandenwyngaert

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Review: The Pillowman

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You would be hard pressed to find a comedy blacker than Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. It is a world in which brutal police interrogation precedes talk of itchy arses. Police interrogators squabble over whether or not to put the electrodes on. Extremes of innocence are pushed to extremes.

The main character of the story at first seems to be one that we’ve seen before – a writer, the surreally named Katurian Katurian Katurian (could the “K” winkingly refer to Kafka’s Joseph K?) – is interrogated for crimes that he did not commit. At first, we assume that Katurian’s interrogation is politically-motivated; however, in the first plot-twist of many, we soon realise that Katurian’s alleged crimes are so grave that they appal even the accusers.

The plots of his macabre children’s stories – tales that could, as one interrogator remarks, easily be titled “101 ways to skewer a five year-old” – have been carried out in reality. Katurian’s brother, whose mental handicap stems from years of “artistically-inspired” torture at the hands of his parents, is implicated.

A great advertisement for gender-blind casting, Claire Bowman’s performance as Katurian was highly nuanced. She brilliantly highlighted Katurian’s arrogance and pride in his own stories, showing his inability to resist the urge to answer back. A gifted story-teller, Bowman held all captive as she strode the stage as the eponymous Pillowman. Her depiction, moreover, of Katurian’s gradual self-realisation was truly spine-tingling.

Most touching was the relationship between Katurian and his brother, Michael. As Michael, Emma D’Arcy’s performance was nothing short of virtuosic. At first, her literalistic reading of the character’s handicap made me feel slightly uneasy. Was it tasteful? Would it lapse into unfunny and unpleasant parody? However, as the play progressed, the D’Arcy’s immense sensitivity in the role quickly became apparent.

Her depiction of Michael’s youthful innocence brilliantly highlighted Katurian’s own hypocrisies and made me question the extent to which Michael is the one who feels the biggest scars of his parents’ torture.

There were superb performances by Dominic Applewhite as the wise-cracking Tupolski and Jonathan Purkiss as his thuggish partner Ariel. Although his queues in the second half weren’t as sharp as they might have been, Applewhite’s quick-fire delivery drew the biggest laughs. Purkiss shone in Act 2 as we saw Ariel’s softer side.

Director Thomas Bailey’s vision for the world of The Pillowman was realised by the fantastic sets of Joel Scott-Halkes. Whilst they made full use of the Playhouse stage, his sets never distracted from the action. He added – literally – a new dimension to the play: at key moments, the back wall of the cramped, interrogation room gave way to an eerie forest scene. Never gimmicky, the restraint with which this was deployed only served to maximise its impact, never impinging on the play’s claustrophobia.

Riddled with reveals and unexpected turns, it seems that Katurian is not the only one who loves telling stories. This production was of a near West-End level of professionalism that highlighted the brilliance of McDonagh’s writing. I recommend it without reservation.

The Pillowman is playing at The Oxford Playhouse until 1st November

 

PHOTO/Dina Tsesarsky

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Review: Bouncers

 

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A small space, pounding music, flashing lights. Sound familiar? At the Burton Taylor the cast of John Godber’s Bouncers unapologetically conjures up a night out in a Northern town. From the ritual of getting ready, to the unsteady taxi ride home, snapshots of the night are punctuated by the condescending glare of the four Bouncers who observe it all.

(more…)

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Review: Fat Pig

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“A play with a great personality” – so runs the tagline for Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, currently on at the Burton Taylor Studio. It’s a brilliant and witty description that gets to the heart of what this interesting piece is all about: the stereotypes, awkwardness, shame, discrimination and, indeed, hatred that surrounds fat people (or should that be plus-sized?). (more…)

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