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

Diagnosis Kafka: A Country Doctor, BT Studio

Diagnosis Kafka: A Country Doctor, BT Studio

Kafka. The name alone is usually enough to send shivers through you. Personally, the addition of a creepy groom, a raped girl and a dying boy seemed completely unnecessary, if it was a scare you were after. You could just as well have stood in the middle of the stage with no lights or props, whispering ‘Kafka, Kafka, Kafka; Kafka’s on your set texts’, and I’d have been in pieces.

But they didn’t do that, of course. Instead the production went full-throttle at the weirder elements from the original story, the mysteriously appearing groom, the exact nature of the boy’s illness, the fate of Rose. Though running at only 45 minutes, this production doesn’t exactly leave you feeling short-changed. There are enough set moments crammed in amidst unsettling lines to leave the audience with the sense that they have been told a full, if incomprehensible story. Where the production was particularly clever was in their use of elements of the original script, combined with moments more typical of Theatre of Cruelty. The audience was on the one hand lulled by the repetitive, sometimes sing-song nature of the dialogue and then thrust out somewhere new and unknown.

There were some problems though. The production often seemed to have been so delighted by the chance do to something ‘odd’ and ‘different’ (as the program tells us) that they forgot that things have to be weird and new for a reason, not just for the sake of it. Whilst enthusiasm is great, it did mean that the play ended up being stuffed with just about everything odd and different they could think of, just in case the audience didn’t get just how new and different they were. Minute silences; chanting; half-singing. We got the works.

Overall the performances themselves were a little mixed: Charles Davies and Alex Wilson really left to carry the production between them whilst the others erred on just the wrong side of forgettable. Unfortunately, a decent script was strongly affected by the feeling that these were just a bunch of A-level drama students, keen to show off everything they’d learnt in as little time as possible. It’s the problem with looking back to find something new to do (the original story was written in 1919); what was once boundary-pushing now looks a little heavy-handed; what was once impressive is now just a little bit irritating.

*** (3 STARS)

A Country Doctor plays at the Burton-Taylor studio until Saturday.