There’s been some serious hype around the OUDS New Writing Festival this year, and it all comes to a head in 7th week – the work of four of Oxford’s hottest new writers, battling it out in the BT for the coveted Best Play award. Speaking to the writers themselves and the directors who brought their work to the stage, it wasn’t difficult to see what the fuss was all about. With a line-up as diverse, dedicated, and downright talented as this year’s crop, there was never any question that it’s going to be a zinger. The heterogeneity in terms of experience, approach, and style is remarkable, showcasing talent from the full range of Oxford’s extensive pool. Sami Ibrahim of St Peter’s, throwing his hat into the ring with writing debut The Man Who Loses, concedes that “I haven’t written much before – a few sketches with a comedy troupe. I guess I started writing because I thought it would be a challenge: I wasn’t sure if I could actually write something, so I thought I’d give it a go”. Not so with James Biondi, writer of Lover’s Suicide. Connecticut native, he is in Oxford completing a Masters in English and American Studies. Having managed to produce “six complete plays (including Lover’s Suicide), a novel, and a whole bunch of other kernel-y things”, he told me how his play was written “a couple of years ago, while I was an undergrad under the guidance of Amy Herzog, an American playwright who was a visiting professor at Yale”. What is clear across the board is the value of OUDS Drama Cuppers as a means of incubating theatrical bright sparks – Ibrahim directed in it last year before trying his hand at writing; Lamorna Ash, architect of Christchurch’s five nominations for The Twin Paradox in 2013 Cuppers, returns to the fray with Love Plus; Daniel de Lisle credits “everyone who was a part of Hugh’s 2013 Cuppers” as a key influence. Whether the works have been two months or two years in the making, it’s not just the writers who are putting in the legwork – the directors, hand-picked by NWF producer Isabella Anderson, have been working feverishly to polish their productions. Daniel de Lisle, directing Howard Coates’s Polly, indignantly asserted that he’d “suffered for this production. I’ve taken rehearsals ill, and as my friends will attest (and mock me for), I haven’t been on a night out since we started rehearsals”. The directors all share that dedication, but the delicate writer-director balance is struck differently for each. De Lisle “worked closely with Howard in auditioning the cast and discussing how we would approach the text”, but in the words of Coates himself, “I’ve since let Dan get on with bringing the thing to life”. Olivia Dunlop, directing Ibrahim’s The Man Who Loses, recalls “a number of Pret-based luncheons and heated discussions. On one occasion, we drew in a neighbouring member of the public as to how best to solve a plot point spatially, reenacted using cryptic drawings and available detritus”. Ibrahim, though, “took a back seat”. Having directed new writing last year, she “always felt a bit awkward with the writer there, as I felt I might be ruining his work with every decision I made! So, when the tables were turned, I decided it was best to let the director do whatever she wanted with the play, once it got to the rehearsal stage”. Biondi is taking a less orthodox approach: “I take in the scenes with my eyes closed to avoid obsessing over the actual staging of it”.
The smooth running of the relationship is certainly aided by the pack’s interdisciplinary talents. There isn’t one of them who doesn’t have some experience of another facet of theatre – acting, directing, writing, producing – as Biondi puts it, “theatre, from speaking words onstage to writing words on paper to hammering nails into the wood that people will stand on, has been a huge part of my life for about half of it”. Olivia Dunlop, too, “dabbled in acting in the past, which greatly informed my writing. I think directing arose out of a dissatisfaction in my own acting ability to portray what I imagined, so now I harass others for ‘truth’ instead”.
Clearly, competition is going to be fierce. But whoever wins the day, the heart of what makes the New Writing Festival so exciting is in the name – new, fresh, exciting and searingly bright theatre from playwrights who may well go on to do great things – as Olivia Dunlop puts it: “Oh, I suffer for my art, terribly and endlessly. But I am saving the ordeals for material for that next play”.
Without beating around the bush too much, Commensal’s production of John Ford’s play Tis Pity She’s a Whore is a resounding success. The seventeenth century tale of incest and blood is rendered in a way that preserves the integrity of the original text, it’s serious shock value, but paints the play (using ketchup and a pigs heart as a brush, may I add) in a fresh light that many productions often fail to do.
Audiences are always wary when a production adopts a different time period to the original. Yet, Commensal’s production succeeds in utilising a modern staging whilst maintaining the integrity of the original script and plot. The modern innovations on the Luhrman-esque stage enhance the original play text, as opposed to detracting from it. The highlight of this successful fusion is the blending of excellent live music with contemporary (quite often risqué) fantasised dance routines that transport the lusting desires of both Soranzo and Giovanni onto the stage. The audience can’t help but laugh when Annabella asks demurely ‘Sir, what you will with me?’ after she has just proceeded to throw herself around the central platform of the stage in a highly suggestive way. The performance is littered with these little comic moments of reinvention like this that provide the audience with a brief reprieve from the intense and violent plot, and the audience resounds every time with a great deal of laughter.
An energetic cast keeps the cast moving, preventing there from ever being a slow moment as the performance mounts towards the ending climax. It is at this point that Giovanni thrusts himself into the limelight with an impassioned performance that sticks in the mind of every member of the audience as they leave. But I won’t spoil this (gory) surprise that still continues to shock centuries later. Let’s just say that the audience should feel more pity for the strong stomached cleaners left to deal with the aftermath than Annabella. But anyone can put up with a bit of blood in return for such a fantastic performance.
Pterodactyls by Nicky Silver is a new project funded by the Oxford Revue and comes to the Burton Taylor Studio at 7:30pm Tuesday-Saturday in 8th Week. The show marks the first time in a long time that the Revue has funded an existing comedy show, and the Oxford Student caught up with Pterodactyls director Kieran Ahern to find out what it’s about and the impressive central fossil-based feature.
Can you summarise the plot of the play?
The play revolves a Philadelphia family formed from a kaleidoscope of different mental and physical affliction; from delusion to amnesia, and, in the case of the central character Todd (Tom Dowling), an AIDs diagnosis. What follows from this is a descent of these individuals into a far more rudimentary, base state that ends up being both harrowing and hilarious.
How are you blending elements of the realistic and the absurd?
A lot of this comes through the set and the characters at work. The play begins with a very conventional, warmly lit Philadelphia apartment and over the course of the show becomes far bleaker and desolate. Going on alongside this are a number of ludicrous dialogue-based experiences, that oscillate quite distinctly between sentimentality and the surreal.
Rumour has it you are using a very impressive set: a 2 metre dinosaur skeleton, can you tell us the thinking behind this and the difficulties it presented?
One key element of the play itself is a collection of bones found in the backyard by Todd and slowly assembled over the course of the play. Of course it’s taken us a bit longer than an hour to assemble the dinosaur (currently housed in a St Catz’ kitchen) but the main idea is to get the skeleton towering over the audience and really add to the haunting feeling that the show creates.
The play deals with the theme of the AIDS and its treatment in the 1990s. How is this achieved? And why the choice to link it to pre-historic elements?
A lot of this comes down to Todd, who is both a maverick in many ways but at other times really the most human member of the cast. He has been diagnosed with this affliction that really scares him, and yet a familial comfort is not forthcoming. It is the bones, stagnant and decaying at first yet forming a distinctly powerful image by the end, that really provide him with a sense of comfort. It is this that Silver is really trying to show with the pre-historic elements.
Why should people come and see this – what makes it different from other Oxford shows?
What makes Pterodactyls so different from shows is this lucrative blend of black, refined comedy that the cast have spent a long time perfecting mixed with these extraordinary familial situations. Every scene is not just hilarious to watch but also very resonant for the audiences, and they’ll leave it satisfied with a real sense of attachment to some of the characters depicted.
Brechtian ‘Epic Theatre’: it was a challenge from the start. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle Brecht created a play within a play in the complex world of post-revolutionary Grusinia. Auden’s scripted translation, complete with pithy ironies, jokes and musical interludes served as the framework for this production.
The two stories are presided over by the ever-present narrator, played by Jack Sain , whose entire demeanour (costume, make up, mannerisms and use of the stage), started off brilliantly in his role of puppet master. In distracting your attention with the brief burning of paper, and creeping behind the actors like some evil magician, manipulating their movements and whispering in their ears the stage was set for a powerful and gripping performance. Unfortunately, his poor tonal range and often weak projection that left his overall portrayal fairly undynamic; a part that needed a commanding stage presence was in the end was reduced to a fairly smug ring-master.
The set, scaffolding comprising two levels of three compartments, sat awkwardly at the back of the stage throughout, its potential utilized fully only in the very first scene where shadows appear in each compartment. For the rest of the performance it became a white elephant. It appeared as though a great task at great expense had been undertaken and the outcome left me wondering for what end. The ‘epic’ bridge scene exemplifies the general disappointment, where the characters are building up to the imminent struggle of Grusha and Michael crossing of a shaky bridge over a deep ravine. Here the installation and sound worked well, but when it came to the crux she just skipped across the bridge behind the curtain, arriving on the other side: ‘Ta-da!’. There was no tension: a large compelling build up produced a disappointing outcome.
Despite this, there were some re-juvinating scenes, gripping and well done: the wedding party in all its hilarity and the puppet children playing by the river were cause for light relief in a play that was otherwise struggling to keep up with itself. Furthermore, some of the chorus put in brilliant performances, notably Claire Bowman, whose performance of varying characters all felt new and fresh, and Dominic Applewhite, who brought some much needed light-hearted moments to the first half. Luke Rollason held the second half together in his portrayal of the judge Azdak, providing some moments of hilarity in his presentation of popular misogynistic humour, but somehow his camp stage presence didn’t quite manage to unmask the inner lunacy of the wise fool as he makes a merry mockery of the legal system in his unsubtle bribery and passing of absurd rulings. But that in part may have been due to the fact that at this point I was unsure as to whether the whole performance had broken down into pantomime.
I struggled to find what was holding the whole thing together and unfortunately so did a number of other people in the audience who didn’t quite make it back to their seats after the interval. Unfortunately the sheer scale of the set was the only thing that managed to fill the stage, leaving me with distinct disappointment in a play that could have been great in the more intimate setting of the Keble O’Reilly, but had unfortunately became dwarfed in the Playhouse.
Lamorna Ash’s offering for the Oxford New Writing Festival delivers a powerful indictment of modern sexual politics – but considering its subject matter, the play feels remarkably chaste. Love Plus is a dystopian parable warning against the dangers of men’s desire for perfection, manifested in the titular ‘Love Plus’ programme – a living and breathing ‘woman’ subservient to the whims of its owner. The clear overtones of prostitution and sexual slavery are evident; why, then, does this performance feel so distant from the very real threat of violence it seeks to portray?
It’s partly the unfortunate lack of chemistry between gentle James and his narcissistic boyfriend Chris, the genius behind Love Plus’ creation. The interactions between James and Ayah, his virtual girlfriend (the latter of whom is, intriguingly, replaced by a different actress in each scene), also feel wrong, but in an awkward, rather than voyeuristic, sense. Even when he is pushed to breaking point and slaps her, the moment doesn’t feel as wrong as it should. The set, by contrast, feels perfectly suited to the bleak atmosphere of stagnation. Oppressive wooden blocks are the only furniture onstage, and when one Ayah is present with James her two counterparts remain slightly obscured by a translucent screen in the corner. One almost forgets their presence until certain of Ayah’s catchphrases – ‘you’re such a great boyfriend’ – are spoken by all three in unison. The effect is disturbing, all the more so when one recognises that at no point in the play is any character really offstage. There is no privacy in this piece.
The pervasive unsettling quality of Love Plus is certainly Ash’s most impressive achievement. The transitions between scenes are abrupt, unexpected and create a disorienting chronology, which fits in perfectly with both James and Chris’ diminishing perception of what is real and what is not. Subtle hints to the state of the outside world give the play a Huxley-esque edge as the male characters slip between states of catharsis and catatonia, drugging themselves with flawless female bodies, even though the action never leaves their apartment. The steady corruption of the Love Plus not-quite-robots from sustained interaction with Chris and James is a nice touch as well, as their language as well as their bodies decay. Misha Pinnington’s performance as the final incarnation of Love Plus is particularly affecting as the machines slowly gain awareness of the flaws in both Chris and Jamie; one feels that their plight is a greater tragedy than even James’. Love Plus’s message is clear and strident regarding the horrors of slavery as well as patriarchy, but I can’t help but feel that the play’s stilted relationships prevent it from being more than good.
Student shows where the director has little idea what his actors are about to do on stage are something of a rarity. Devised Play One: Fear is such a show. The brainchild of a conversation between Rough-Hewn directors Tommo Fowler and Emma D’Arcy, the project eschews formalised, set scripts in favour of a collaborative creative process, with content driven by the actors and writer Emma Levinkind. Drawing heavily on improvisation, the show is a fluid piece devised in performance (hence the name – clever isn’t it?). After watching a couple of scenes which moved from comic neurosis to unsettling pathos, I sat down with Co-director Thomas Bailey and a few of the cast to discuss the concept and progress of the play.
This isn’t a fundamentally text driven show, so how have you envisaged the relationship between the writer and the director?
Tom Bailey: It’s a fluid thing. What’s tended to happen is we’ve worked out various themes to explore through improvisation as a group and exercises led by the director. Emma observes and writes scripts which we then use and devise from. Eventually the thing’s gonna be written by Emma but there’s a lot of watching, a lot of post-it notes and spider diagrams.
Is it actor led or director led in terms of how things happen?
Tom: The content has really all come from the actors; it’s our job to facilitate them and the content which is then polished by Emma. Our job is lovely, we just to handpick the best stuff and put it together.
Emma Levinkind: Basically there are scenes which have cropped up time again, and I’ve been putting in some dialogue and jokes to round it off.
Broadly then, what is the piece about (so far)?
Emma: We’ve ended up constructing this incredibly strange world inhabited by characters who are mainly motivated by fear – the fear of being alone, of doing the wrong thing in a social situation.
Hopefully not fear of the stage; I guess it tells you a lot about your actors then?
Tom: Yeah it really does. One of our early tag lines was ‘a play where the actor/character boundary is dangerously fluid’, but most of the characters are so horrible now that we’ve buried that line a little. What’s also important is that we’ve created this communal vocabulary of characters and mini-scenes we can stitch together.
Nick Finerty (actor): One of our first points of inspiration was that we’d each tell a story and everyone would have to impersonate that person and push it further, so by the time it got back to you you were having to impersonate yourself as seen through everyone else.
Sam Ward (actor): that was a really deep time [laughter]
As actors your role in this is quite unusual with such an emphasis on you as content creators. Is that frightening or a release?
Sam: In a way it’s frightening as you don’t have the co-ordinates of a character from a text , but at the same time it’s very free: to make it work we just have to do everything a bit over the top.
Nick: It’s also about making sure you commit to everything, so you can commit equally to things that are farcical and serious.
Sam: That’s why the rehearsals work so well, everyone throws themselves into it.
Lamorna Ash (actress): It’s quite exciting that we come away from each rehearsal having done something completely different and mad as opposed to the routine of doing the same thing every time. This way, everything is fresh all the time and it will certainly be on the night.
Devised Play One: Fear is on at the BT from Tues-Sat of 8th week. Tickets from £5
When reincarnating something as famous as Strangers on a Train, it can be easy to fall into the trap of trying to reinvent every aspect of the production. Robert Allan Ackerman’s interpretation, however, revels in the history of this work. While more faithful in plot to Patricia Highman’s novel, from the second the curtain rises to reveal a projection of a chugging steam train through to the play’s denouement, there is clear homage being paid to Hitchcock’s screenplay’s film noir style.
Undoubtedly the most impressive aspect of this production is the staging, which alternates between complex sets that would not look out of place in a film, to minimalist scenes with nothing but a spotlight. The most striking of these is the scene on the carousel in the first half, which makes sublime use of the rotating stage. However, it is not the physical incarnations of the stalking and the murders that create the fear and suspense in this play, but the intensity of characterisation. The actors are at their best in the soliloquy scenes, as Bruno’s obsession and Haines’ mental decline intensify throughout the latter stages of the first act. Jack Huston’s Bruno captivates the audience’s attention from the moment he appears on stage until the final scene, striking up disturbing, yet believable relationships with both his mother and his companion in crime, which he delivers with searing vivacity. Unfortunately, Lawrence Fox has marginally less success in portraying Haines. At times, he is Huston’s equal, particularly during the scenes of mental disintegration as Bruno blackmails Haines into murder. However, at other moments it is hard to believe that Fox is playing the same character as in the preceding scene, since his portrayal alters from a nervous, stammering Haines to one of confidence and stature. This is particularly apparent in the opening scenes: he seems incredibly awkward when first confronted by Bruno, yet then incredibly confident in dealing with his former wife in the scene which follows.
Nonetheless, these momentary lapses of characterisation do not detract greatly from the first half of the production simply because the action moves so fast, with the audience so immersed in this gripping tale of blackmail, friendship and psychological disorder so as not to notice them.
The second half of the production is slower and, in this case, consequently weaker. However, the denouement is executed with such drama and unexpectedness as to redeem the entire second half of the performance, and is undoubtedly the most shocking and impressive ending I have ever witnessed on stage. In short, this interpretation of Strangers on a Train is so fast-paced and, in general, well-executed as to hide its flaws, and thus make it nothing short of an exceptionally compelling drama.
Set in the height of the roaring twenties, The Great Gatsby has always been a favourite for adaptations in spite of it being a notoriously hard novel to put on stage or screen. However, Dominic Pollard’s slick, fun production combats this problem with intelligent directorial choices.
The story follows the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby’s (Percy Stubbs) attempts to win back his once love Daisy Buchannan (Hannah Schofield). He longs for her to one day walk into one of his lavish parties so he can impress her with his money and sophistication – two attributes Daisy adores.
However, this is not in itself what makes the novel “great”. The events are filtered through the narrative voice of Nick Carroway whose distancing commentary defines the feel of the novel. Many adaptations resolve this by adding extra scenes to make the love story of Gatsby and Daisy more prominent. Dominic Pollard cleverly resolves this through having a narrator – Old Nick played by Henry van Oosterom – throughout. This not only allows a faithful adaptation but also permits a medium for the beauty of Fitzgerald’s lengthy prose to be presented.
Van Oosterom as a narrator drives the story competently allowing direction where it could be potentially lost and leads a strong main cast.
However, standout performances are delivered by those underlying in the main action, such as Kimberly Sadovich’s Jordan whose understated cool confidence in scenes reflects the ennui of the age. Keelan Kember’s Young Nick also stands out with a performance that grew in confidence building up to his captivating last lines:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The set, costumes and music transformed the theatre into a party in the 1920s. Some elements were disappointing, however, as the eyes of T. J. Eckleberg lost their symbolic power when they were reduced simply to two lopsided blue dots of light.
My main quibble with the production was the scene changes. The difficulty of limited stage and set meant that the blackouts were sometimes necessary but too frequent. This meant that the continuity of the piece and the attention of the audience was disrupted.
However, this is a production put on by someone who understands The Great Gatsby and at its heart is the intellectual retelling of the story one would hope for.