Stage

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Preview: Our Country’s Good

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s politically charged Our Country’s Good comes to Oxford’s Keble O’Reilly theatre in 3rd Week. Situated on a convict ship headed to Australia in the 1780s, the play is packed with love triangles, power struggles, and clever dialogue.

The crux, however, is the staging of a play within the play itself, completely altering the relationships between the characters as all are leveled on the stage. As their involvement with the theatre gradually softens the hearts and minds of the convicts, the play raises vital questions about the role of art in convict rehabilitation. Director Fay Lomas describes how controversy over banning books in prisons made her keen to put on the play: “I heard Chris Grayling being interviewed on the radio trying to justify the ban and ended up shouting at the radio in frustration. It really got me thinking about the importance of art/ literature as something for everyone, and about the role art can play in rehabilitation.”

The play sees convicts find their voices and learn about themselves through theatre, unfolding in the shadow of one execution, and under the looming threat of another. The dichotomy created is clear: either convicts and leaders can come together to better themselves through theatre, or the group can self-destruction as those in charge exploit their power over those below.

The power relations between the cast are at the heart of the play’s dramatic tension, as Lomas aims to stress visually by creating a literal hierarchy with blocks on the stage. The ground level is the confine of the convicts, only allowed to progress up onto higher levels when acting in the play. Though the metaphor is clear and striking, it will be interesting to see how the cast succeeds in playing this out without disrupting the movement of the play.

Dominic Pollard and William Yeldham do a good job, however, with their testosterone-fuelled contest as Ralph and Wisehammer trying to win the affections of Mary, played by Alannah Jones; it fits perfectly with Lomas’s stage concept, as the two of them subtly air their grievances with Mary nervously shuddering between them.

Mary’s part, played by Alannah Jones, is set to be more challenging than those of Ralph and Wisehammer. The female characters are given a more passive role, so that much of their acting relies on body language, something that presents an inevitable challenge. Jones calls her character “frustratingly shy,” presenting a “compelling contradiction of worldliness and naivety.” It’s an absorbing combination, and hopefully Jones’s female cast members will fill the role accordingly. Another difficulty that faces the cast is the multi-rolling, as all the characters but Ralph play dual roles; Lomas takes the same approach as Ralph within the play – the difficulty can be turned into an advantage.

While it’s hard to see how a play set on an 18th century convict ship could be relevant and engaging to an audience today, Our Country’s Good is set to grip its viewers firmly. Its metatheatrical elements keep the audience thinking about their role, and the role of theatre, equally keeping Lomas on her toes.

Directing Ralph to act as director “is really rewarding because of the way it makes you more conscious of your own process of creating a show,” she says. The thought and passion going into the play at this early stage is set to result in a thrilling and entertaining watch – don’t miss out!

‘Our Country’s Good’ is playing at the Keble O’Reilly in 3rd week

BT publicity
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Preview: Bouncers

John Godber’s play Bouncers is, in the playwrights own words, a ‘grotesque’ comedy of exaggerated characters, and the ‘Poor Player Productions’ version of it looks set to practically ooze this. The play, with a cast of four, is based around the preparation for a big Friday night, and moves fluidly from one set of characters to the next, culminating in a well-executed finale.

The four actors in the production rotate between extremes with ease, not only limited to character. Completely in control of their sound and movement, the players here command their stage entirely, and convincingly and effortlessly morph between the different sets of characters.

These include (but are not limited to) the nightclub bouncers of the title, the ‘girls’ before the big Friday night out and the ‘lads’ (or perhaps, more appropriately, ‘ladz’). The juxtaposition between the almost aggressively hilarious masculinity of the bouncers and the boys and the ridiculous femininity of the girls is pulled off well.

Both the play and the players are also comically self-aware. The group of bouncers mocking lads in general brings ironic layers into the performance: the actors imitate and caricature not only as themselves but as characters mocking other characters.

Disorientating as that may sound, this production group does bring it off persuasively, and as an audience member you never feel left out of their jokes. The exaggeration of the comedy brings the audience completely on side, particularly in the near ritualistic scenes of the lads getting ready – you’re laughing with them, and yet it doesn’t feel forced: something quite rare in such extravagant comedy.

Bouncers is more than just a romp through the potential to parody a night out however, and the cast do show glimpses of true emotion underneath, and sometimes through, their ridiculousness.

The ludicrous images the characters, especially the bouncers themselves, build up are only occasionally permeated by the back stories that turn them (just) into people, and the very rare instances of this emphasises the grotesqueness of the majority of the play.

Many of these result in almost scary fights or near fights, the excellent direction of which is indicative of the fast-paced yet well thought out work of the two co-directors, Adam Leonard and James Watt, throughout the production.

It begins and ends, of course, with the bouncers, and these are the most convincing and comedic caricatures in the production. At the very least, they will make you snort, and, more likely, the whole play will have you laughing – easily worth a visit.

‘Bouncers’ plays at the Burton Taylor studio from 28th October – 1st November

Photo credit: BT publicity

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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.

‘Fat Pig’ plays at the Burton Taylor Studio from 22nd October – 25th October

Photo credit: BT publicity

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Review: From the Horse’s Mouth

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Stand-up, spoken-word and performance poetry have long seemed secondary in Oxford’s crowded cultural milieu to theatre and music, driven underground and out of town to places like Jericho’s Albion Beatnik Bookstore. New spoken-word night From the Horse’s Mouth aims for nothing less than bringing what has long been a quietly thriving scene to the ears, eyes, hearts and souls of the Oxford mainstream.
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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

 

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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!

The Oxford Student

Oxford's Newspaper since 1991