DEBATE: This house would support state funding of drama and the arts

DEBATE: This house would support state funding of drama and the arts

PROPOSITION: Tommo Fowler makes a play to get state sponsoring for the stage

Theatre can be roughly split into two categories: commercial and subsidised. Commercial theatre fuses art with the rampant Capitalist machine, while its subsidised cousin relies upon state handouts partially bankrolled by the hundreds of thousands of people who probably have no interest in it. This is a huge topic at the moment thanks to the government’s systematic decimation of public funding for the arts, stemming from Ed Vaizey’s belief that art should prove its worth. It is screamingly obvious that the benefit of culture is unquantifiable by normal measures, so the notion of valorising artistic output is close to absurd. Yet this, according to Vaizey, is what theatre must do if it is to regain its funding.

Sir Nick Hytner (outgoing Artistic Director of the Royal National Theatre) is – predictably – in favour of subsidy, and has made many a compelling case for the arts to have secure and plentiful public funding. One of the most persistent examples he gives, picked up by many commenting on the same subject, is the contrast between the output of West End theatres (commercial) and those like the National, Royal Court or Royal Shakespeare Company (subsidised). The former house vast productions (often on transfer from Broadway) which regularly run for decades, have eye-watering ticket prices, and offer a level of glitz very rarely seen anywhere – particularly in these trying economic times. The latter produces a mixture of classic revivals and urgent new plays which address the world we live in; often, they specifically engage with the communities local to that theatre (particularly evident in regional theatres such as Hull Truck, or the Tricycle in Brent). Most importantly, much of this subsidised theatre can be seen for £8-15 if you’re under twenty-five.

New plays, however, are a risk. With little money to spend on anything, let alone an evening of ephemeral enjoyment, audiences want to play it safe and part with their hard-earned cash only for something they’re pretty sure they’ll enjoy. Blissful escapism is seductive, and who can blame a person from wanting to forget the pressures of the job or mortgage repayments for two and a half hours? I can’t, and I’ll say now that I thought Wicked was completely brilliant. However, such plays usually do not provoke thought, they do not prompt discussion with those around us, and they often do not hold a mirror up to us (which, as those from Aristotle to modern neuroscientists have said, is what draws people to the theatre in the first place).

Yet subsidy does not necessarily give the polar opposite of this and flood theatres with pretentious morons writhing about in masks and serving nothing but their own inflated sense of self-importance. In fact, three of Britain’s most commercially and critically successful theatrical endeavours have been Matilda: The Musical (based on Roald Dahl’s book), Warhorse, adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s popular children’s novel by the puppet company Handspring, and – most recently – Simon Stephens’ version of Mark Haddon’s classic The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time; all of these were made possible only through the support of state subsidy. The writers and directors acknowledge that, had they the constant pressure of a deadline or profit margin, their creativity would have been stifled and the end ‘product’ far less compellingly inventive.

At Oxford, the pro rata funding system allows student production companies to make profit which can then be used to fund further plays, or simply to make producers feel terribly impressive and successful. This is brilliant in many ways, but it drives exactly the aforementioned focus on money rather than art. Given that it’s strongly advised for a producer to reinvest their money into the drama society when they graduate, there is literally nothing to be gained by such a motivation. We have the opportunity to work completely from subsidy, within a framework of financial security and limited repercussions if the show is a flop. Oxford students are notoriously loathe to do anything which might fail, but – for those of us intending to pursue a career in theatre when we leave – this is maybe the best thing we can do. No-one outside of the Oxford bubble will care how ignorant students review the production, nor whether it sells out, but they will care that we’ve developed creatively and tried new things – even if all we discover is that miming the story of War and Peace from inside a giant flowerpot actually doesn’t make for a thrilling evening out.

So a word of advice for incoming Freshers, those who want to put something on for the first time, or old-hands who think they know it all: challenge yourself to do something different. Yes, the Dreaming Spires hold much inspiration for beautifully constructed and lyrical theatre – but look outside the city walls and you may find that Blackbird Leys holds the beating heart of human existence. Look Back in Anger is a classic now, but became so because it looked at a part of society which theatre-goers wanted to ignore. A tension is created, a conflict both onstage and in ourselves, and that is where the best drama can be found – but only when we have the freedom to seek it regardless of profit margins.

[caption id="attachment_46233" align="aligncenter" width="538"]Our controversial Culture Minister Our controversial Culture Minister[/caption]

OPPOSITION: Eleanor Sharman finds fault with the notion of tax-funded theatricals

Pretty much everyone reading this section has two things in common. 1. an Oxford education; 2. an overwhelming, all-consuming, passionate love of theatre and the arts. And hyperbole.

But in all seriousness, we can probably agree that drama is pretty cool and we enjoy going to see it and getting involved. And not just drama – art exhibitions, dance, literature, sculpture, everything. It’s all great. Maybe we’d even like more of it in our lives. There’s no disputing that. But there is some serious disputing to do when it comes to the claim that the state is obliged to pay for our artsy habit.

We’re told that the idea that art ought to prove its worth is damaging. Yet, equally, “culture”, – whatever that elusive beast may be (and I suspect the priority is more often given to Milton than Miley Cyrus) – being regarded as unquantifiable by normal measures is confusing. Why, exactly, should it be so hard to gauge? A well-worn example: we’re all students. Most of us run tight budgets. Most of us make the choice to go to the theatre based on more than just its artistic value; we know that we simply can’t afford to zip off to the Playhouse every night for our daily dose of High Culture. And when we do buy tickets, it’s a transaction like any other. We pay for an experience. The experience might be sublime, it might be radical and even transcendent – it might be more than worth the price of the ticket. But most of us probably wouldn’t pay, say, £100 rather than £10 for it. Its worth is still measured in terms of the opportunity which money affords us.

In all areas of life we succumb to opportunity costs. I might choose to go to Bridge and drink Jägerbombs instead of writing my tute essay. I might choose to watch six episodes of Heroes and eat chocolate instead of going for a run. These are opportunity costs (and probably big ones, painful though it is to admit). To cut off theatre and “culture” as being above all other spheres is idealism taken to an almost unsettling extreme. We find some kind of transcendence in great work and demand that, accordingly, the work be removed from such mundane concerns as finance and budgeting. This is a lovely idea. It really is. I would like free arts as much as the next person. But it isn’t even remotely possible, and to suggest otherwise has some dangerous implications.

Tommo draws our attention to the contrast in output between commercial, for-profit West End theatres and those which receive state subsidy. It’s an important comparison: glitz and glamour vs. the prospect of “classic revivals and urgent new plays”. Granted, it might be unfair to claim that the West End deals solely in extravagant Broadway shows, or that our subsidised theatres never stretch to the opulence of their corporate counterparts. But even if we take the comparison as absolutely accurate, there’s a clear judgement implied: glitzy Broadway is simply not as valuable as, say, a dynamic new interpretation of an old Beckett or Brecht.

The idea is so tempting – Wicked quite clearly does not belong to the same genus as Waiting for Godot, and we do know which one is Objectively Better Theatre. But this is the crux of the problem. We’re still bound by the tired (and very conservative) notions of higher and lower pleasures; by the idea that some drama or literature or artwork is inherently superior to others by virtue of its complexity, its sophistication, or its (usually inseparably) deification as a Great Classic. And we judge accordingly. We judge damningly. We insist that our privileged, “educated” preference ought to be upheld at the expense – a very literal expense, seeing as we’re demanding that some of the poorest in society fund our leisure – of those who frankly couldn’t give a damn about Ayckbourn and would much rather spend their cash on items of their own choosing.

The opposition is right. We are privileged to have a pro rata system in Oxford. It gives us the incredible and beautiful chance to experiment, to push theatrical boundaries, to make mistakes and make discoveries. But our risks cost benefactors; people who have chosen to allow us to make these mistakes, and given us the opportunity to make these discoveries. As students, we’re given finance through OUDS or underwriting funds because people want us to learn, and don’t mind if we cock up. They don’t mind if our produce is just miming the story of War and Peace from inside a giant flowerpot*.

But we can’t expect that kind of privilege from the general public. We don’t get to demand that they carry on funding our experiments. Nobody has the right to sequester public spending for projects which are – let’s face it – enjoyed only by a tiny, already privileged minority of the population.

So yes, freshers, for pity’s sake experiment. For pity’s sake, take the risks. And no, not just to give us fodder for sarcastic columns in the student paper. Experiment because we are all seriously lucky to have the chance to do so. Oxford likes to throw money at theatre. But we cannot, and should not, force the rest of the country to do the same.

*The Burton Taylor Studio accepts bids before 6th week of every term.

Tess: a sober message for freshers

Tess: a sober message for freshers

It’s that time again when students embark on university life. A new throng of freshers will descend upon the Oxford nightclubs. That first week will be a wonderful blur of neon glow sticks and foam parties. For most, it will be the longest time you have ever spent from home and you will discover the joys of drinking. A lot.

This summer, I reread Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy and was struck, for the first time, by the role alcohol plays in the novel. We first meet Tess when her alcoholic father gatecrashes a party and embarrasses her in front of her friends. His alcoholism impoverishes the family. Alec rapes Tess, in part, by plying her with alcohol. The young, innocent Tess is seduced when she is incapable of truly consenting. She is drunk, exhausted and vulnerable. For Hardy, this seduction is still a terrible violation. Isn’t that idea a loaded assertion today?

Plenty of men target drunk women. This “laddish” behaviour is often lauded rather than rebuked. Sharking is about pursuing someone, generally a woman, who is off her face, someone who is “easy” because they can’t even see straight.

There is something deeply unsettling about this drinking-sex culture. I am certainly not urging anyone never to get drunk and I am also not telling people that they shouldn’t shag whom they please. Yet, sometimes the two combined make a deadly cocktail.

Screen shot 2013-09-24 at 15.28.35

What disturbs me is that when lines have been crossed, alcohol is continually used to condone the aggressor and undermine the credibility of the victim. And yet Hardy, writing over a hundred years ago, ardently insisted that Tess is a pure and virtuous woman in the true sense of the word, that she is Alec’s victim. There is no doubt in Hardy’s mind that purity has nothing to do with sexual innocence and that Tess should not be blamed for Alec’s offence.

Today, groups like SlutWalk have emerged in response to a victim-blaming culture, where women who are promiscuous or like to go out and get drunk are somehow less deserving of our sympathy and “asking for it.”

I can’t stand it. I just can’t comprehend how someone I am very close to recently commented on the awful acid-attack story by saying, “What were two young, Western girls doing in Zanzibar? What do they expect?”

For my short film, I decided to take that climactic scene from the end of Phase The First, where Alec rapes Tess and set it in the present. I hope that our adaptation will present the novel and the characters in a refreshing way that young students, both men and women, can relate to.

Because Alec, or Alex in our short film, is neither a monster nor a pantomime villain. He is a young man, confused and insecure much like his novel counterpart who briefly turns to religion, but finds no spiritual fulfillment. Alex takes advantage of an opportunity that seemingly presents itself to him. He probably wouldn’t even call himself a rapist.

The Maiden is certainly not a campaign video. It’s a fictional drama, though I do hope we succeed in inviting our viewers to question cultural attitudes and, perhaps, think twice before hitting on the young fresher who is stumbling around the cheese floor in Bridge, her eyes completely glazed over.


We should all show the same care and responsibility towards that girl as Hardy does towards Tess. Freshers’ week is coming. Let’s make it a good one.

The Maiden is a short film based on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, being produced largely by Oxford alumni. Its Kickstarter project finishes tomorrow at 13.58. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1287612927/the-maiden-a-short-film

PHOTOS/ Jessica Benhamou (stills from forthcoming film, see above.)

Ain’t This Movie Good

Ain’t This Movie Good

Movies love a good bank heist; prison breaks aren’t bad either – you could probably base some kind of long-form television drama on those. In Ain’t Them Bodies Saints though, these dramatic situations are merely off-screen plot points to enable the telling of the dark romantic tale at its centre.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Young and besotted couple Ruth and Bob, Texan residents played expertly by versatile Rooney Mara and reliable Casey Affleck, rob a bank together, amateurishly, though we see nothing of the job but Bob leaving to perform it. In the chaotic aftermath, during a slightly less brushed-over shootout, Ruth shoots a police officer. Bob gallantly takes the full blame, accepting a sentence of twenty-five to life, leaving Ruth pregnant and alone. He pledges constant written correspondence and steadfast loyalty, and sticks to those promises. The film then skips forwards over four years to a still faithful but increasingly worried Ruth living alone with her and Bob’s daughter, Sylvie. Perturbed by the honest intentions of kind police officer Patrick (Ben Foster), she struggles to deal with the plans of the now-escaped Bob as he travels to reunite with his estranged family.

Mara and Affleck give totally believable central performances, oozing sincerity and naivety, as their fairy-tale, wild-west romance spins out of the ideal into the tragic, but it is the production of the film which is the more standout feature. Alternating between golden sunsets and bronzed dawns, the scenes are almost universally beautiful, and director David Lowery is not afraid of lingering and evocative establishing shots to set the mood. Many dim comparisons have been made between this film and the work of Terrence Malick, but Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels distinct enough. The mumbled conversations in fields do remind of that director’s 2012 film To The Wonder with Casey’s brother Ben, but not in a troublesome or derivative manner.


The film is also scored evocatively, most of the music presented diegetically, linking scenes effectively. The music is almost constant, at times becoming the dominant sound even while characters talk; but Lowery knows what he’s doing – in these cases the precise dialogue is not important, the mood set by the music more so. If Bob and Ruth lean their heads together to share a whispered word and we don’t hear it properly, it only enhances the sense of their mystical, inexplicable love being a private one. The occasional, inevitable gunfire is then punchy and loud, shattering the quiet of the rest of the film.

Lowery’s film certainly takes its  time, and does occasionally let the audience drift into potential boredom with its over-ambling. Though the majority of the line deliveries are clear or unclear for a good purpose, there are instances where a line is both important to the plot and hard to understand, which is obviously somewhat problematic. Overall, however, the beauty of the shooting and the use of audio works to the film’s favour more often that it detracts from it, leaving Ain’t Them Bodies Saints an accomplished success.


Remoulded: From Marriott to Molehill

Remoulded: From Marriott to Molehill

To adapt the lament of Withnail and I’s Uncle Monty: “It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself ‘I will never play the Mole.’”. Fortunately for this young actor, that tragic moment will never come. In just under two weeks’ time, I will take to the stage to embody literature’s most famous subterranean rodent in a new production of Wind in the Willows.

The mole had an illustrious history, even before Kenneth Grahame launched it to international fame. Loyal Jacobites toasted the “little gentleman in black velvet” after every meal as their hated enemy King William III died after his horse stumbled on a mole hill, throwing the king to the ground.mole

As a newcomer to the Oxford theatre scene (save an undistinguished stint as ‘attendant’ in A Man for All Seasons), I was little prepared for the whirlwind life of a thespian. I had dreamed of fame, fortune, and hoards of admiring fans. The reality is somewhat less glamorous. Valuable hours that should be spent cramming for essays are spent in rehearsals or learning lines. The part also elicits remarks from friends like “so you’re playing a mole, yeah I can totally see that!” Are these comments positive assessments of my method acting skills? Or should I be concerned about the implied similarity between me and a rodent?

My forays into method acting have been markedly unsuccessful. Daniel Day-Lewis I am not. Heading out into Uni Parks to build mole hills resulted only in the ire of the gardeners. My diet of grubs and weevils caused an unhappy night of projectile vomiting. The final straw came when I found myself chased out of a field by a local farmer threatening to shoot me and hang me from a gate post.

There is nothing like a good script to make an actor’s life easy. Shakespeare famously gives his actors a helping hand with the rhythms of his iambic pentameter. Unfortunately Britain’s greatest poet was unavailable to write this adaptation of The Wind in the Willows. However, Stephen Hyde, the ‘Bard of Merton’, has produced an excellent script that brings out all the subtle emotional complexities of the famously psychologically intense rodent.

Will my efforts to embody this iconic character end in success? Will I single-handedly destroy the century long legacy of one of the best loved creations of children’s literature? Find out in the Master’s garden of St Peter’s college this 5th week!

Find out more at https://www.facebook.com/events/375224469262117/


Could Sons of Anarchy be nearing an end?

Could Sons of Anarchy be nearing an end?

sons of anarchyFX’s dark and dirty drama about renegade Motorcycle Club The Sons of Anarchy roared back onto UK screens this February, and if the opening episodes of Season Five are anything to go by, the end is nigh for Charming town. After four seasons in the back seat, season five sees Jax finally taking the gavel as President of SAMCRO – no small task given the chaos upon which season four closed. The threat of mutiny hangs heavy in the air as truths and half truths about Clay’s murder of fellow member, Piney, continue to fester, and internal tensions are only exacerbated by the club’s imbroglio with the sinister Damon Pope, and rival gang the One-Niners. If Season Four was (as series creator Kurt Sutter has suggested) act two for the club, then Season Five marks the beginning of its third and final phase, and the threat of imminent destruction is one that simmers ominously throughout these opening episodes.

Things begin innocently enough: Jax muses, as ever, on his tempestuous relationship with the club, but his comments about holding onto “the simple moments…there aren’t many of them left” seem bleakly prophetic, and sure enough, the Sons are locked into a fatal shootout within moments. It’s a violent start to an episode which, even by Sons standards, is particularly brutal, and while this kind of intense, adrenalised action undoubtedly makes for compelling viewing, one can’t help but wonder if the Sons of Anarchy have got a little lost. Recent series have tended to forego the sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that made SAMCRO such an appealing prospect – not only for its members, but for audiences, too – replacing it instead with increasingly convoluted storylines that have seen the club disintegrate as the body count accumulates. It’s a dramatic formula that is beginning to drag as the show rumbles on, and as Jax continues to spout the same lines about “saving” SAMCRO, one finds oneself doubting whether there is, after all, that much worth saving.

This, though, is a criticism that is quickly dispatched with the introduction of the Sons’ new nemesis, Damon Pope, a supervillain on the offensive after the accidental murder of his daughter. Bent on bloody revenge and smart enough to get it, Pope is a baddie after the old school, and the queasy pragmatism with which he dispatches and ordains the new leader(s) of the One-Niners is provocatively juxtaposed against the Sons’ democratic voting in of new members, making SAMCRO seem idyllic by comparison. Paradise it ain’t, though, and the drama comes thick and fast in these early episodes. The season premiere comes to an  extremely sickening climax in a scene which packs real emotional punch, as Pope exacts vengeance on Tig – though it relies more on sheer horror for pathos than Kim Coates’s slightly too understated performance. Elsewhere, Tara and Gemma continue to lock horns, and it’s nice to see Tara developing into a more dynamic character as she takes on the club matriarch. The conflict, then, doesn’t seem likely to let up, but as long as the temptation to resolve all with ‘get out of jail free’ reprieves from the CIA – as has been the case in earlier seasons – is avoided, it could make for some genuinely interesting drama, and a strong fifth season for The Sons of Anarchy.

A Little Night Music Preview

A Little Night Music Preview

Set in fin de siècle Sweden, A Little Night Music is Stephen Sondheim’s Tony award winning musical which, under the helm of the co-directors Griffith Rees and Jack Noutch, already promises much for the Oxford Playhouse in sixth week. This preview was shown in the crowded environs of Somerville College Chapel but, despite the lack of atmosphere granted by this 1930s, white-washed building, the mood of the musical was immediately present as the lieder chorus began to tune up – all part of the overture – and the orchestra started to play. The lieder act somewhat like a Greek chorus, commenting on the events of the musical as it goes along and of course providing fuller harmonies in the big numbers. Although some of the vocals were a little shaky, that was more than excusable in the morning and with a further two weeks to go; the tuning was almost perfect, which is definitely the most important thing.

The main cast of this production are set in motion by the tuning fork of Madame Armfeldt – a character given in this production a mystical responsibility to guide the characters. They all work seamlessly with the lieder chorus to bring out the story of Fredrik Egermann, a lawyer who has married a younger, ‘trophy’ wife to discover that she is unwilling to lose her virginity even to her husband, propelling him back into the arms of his former lover Desiree Armfeldt. Things are complicated by Desiree’s new, jealous lover Count Carl-Magnus who begins to suspect Desiree is not attentive to him alone, whilst his wife Charlotte looks on scathingly.

These four actors work together wonderfully, delivering well the humour of their situation – especially a scene involving Fredrik in the Count’s bathrobe – whilst also aided by the orchestra in building tension. Aleksandr Cvetkovic displays impressive vocals and gravity in the soldier’s uniform of the Count, sparring particularly well with Richard Hill as Fredrik, a character I wish that I could perhaps have seen more of in the preview. Claire Parry as Charlotte brings bitter humour along with the sadness of her role as the cheated wife and raised several laughs, whilst Georgina Hellier was totally natural in her role, playful and daring as a woman having to fight for her survival. The entire cast came together to sing ‘A Weekend in the Country’ which, with its complicated polyphony of lines and multiple stories happening together, was performed with real passion to end the first act.

Finally, to the core of this production – the orchestra was fantastic as the ever-present background music leading the musical onwards. They blended perfectly with the singers despite this being their first rehearsal with both the orchestra and the actors, something I only discovered after the preview. I was not given the name of the conductor, but I offer him my praise! This musical has much potential and I will certainly be going to see the finished product in the Playhouse.

A Little Night Music plays at the Playhouse until Saturday of 6th week.

PHOTOS/Anatole Oudaille-Diethardt
PHOTO/Richard Simmons