Two hit men waiting to find out what the name of their target is for the evening, wait in the cellar of a restaurant. Between them, a dumb waiter occasionally sends down orders for Greek dishes they cannot pronounce and they send up the only supplies they have with them – Eccles cakes. And then, “there’s a twist”, promises director Tom White.
With a new term and a new year upon us, Florence Brady, the President of OUDS, and Claire Bowman, committee member and performer, tell us that it could not be a better time to start getting involved with the Oxford theatre scene.
The OxStu talks to audience members, casts and the judges about their experiences of Cuppers.
It may not have the seamless blend of drama and comedy of Breaking Bad, the expansive fantasy of Game of Thrones or the cool charm of Mad Men, but HBO’s Boardwalk Empire has as much going for it as any show in the so-called ‘Second Golden Age’ of television. Since 2009, it has delighted and amazed audiences with the career of politician-cum-criminal Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, and his personal and professional troubles during the prohibition era. And now, as it enters its fifth and final season, it must maintain the qualities that distinguish it from the multitudes of drama series in order to cement its position alongside the greats, and not tumble into obscurity or, worse, undo all the good work it has already done.
Were it not for the prominent inclusion of one young Al Capone, you might be forgiven for thinking that Boardwalk Empire was wholly fictitious. Prohibition is hardly something prominent on most curriculums, and perceptions are broadly shaped by the Jay Gatsbys of the 1920s and their end of the bootlegging trade. A full understanding of the shadier, less glamourous side is rare. Consequently, the criminals and politicians who make up the Boardwalk Empire ensemble are a deft mix of real life figures, contorted by dramatic license, or total fabrications, who fit effortlessly into the authentic world.
And it is this authenticity which makes Boardwalk Empire what it is.There is a great enthusiasm for accuracy in the costumes, sets, storylines and dialogue which allows for total immersion into Nucky’s world. With period dramas often under the scrutiny of pedants and passionate historians, and the likes of Downton Abbey guilty of numerous anachronistic offenses, the precision with which every element is designed and realised is vital both in terms of avoiding criticism and creating a real, captivating world in which the drama can play out.
It is lavish when it has to be lavish, simple when it has to be simple, and doesn’t compromise on historical integrity for spectacle nor comfort.
The production values are not, however, the only elements which make Boardwalk Empire so enduring and prosperous among such remarkable competition. The experience and personality behind it is key. The creator is Terence Winter, one of the writers of The Sopranos, while Martin Scorsese is an executive producer (he also directed the pilot). Although Scorsese could be seen to be in unfamiliar territory on the small screen, both he and Winter are clearly comfortable with fast-talking, short-tempered, brutal characters. Both have a pedigree which gives Boardwalk Empire a much needed edge. There are times where episodes seem to be going nowhere, and business talk is drowning out the more interesting, tense moments, but the audience can remain confident that, with such acclaimed names behind the show, there are always clues to look out for, and always something bigger bubbling under the surface.
But this simmering tension can bring about problems. Although the characters’ actions leave greater imprints on both each other and on the audience, their words are plenty.
Boardwalk Empire is, without a doubt, a slow-burner, and not every episode has the release of a shootout or a fistfight. Thus the cast must be talented and balanced, and they are.
Steve Buscemi, another Sopranos alumnus, leads the line with mesmerising charm. He can be graceful or severe, gentle or prickly, welcoming or cold, and, against a sea of middle aged men, his striking, almost manic, appearance allows him to catch the audience’s attention. It could be argued that the show is difficult to follow because, in such a large cast, it is hard to keep track of who each dark haired, middle-aged man in a suit is, but with the man described in Fargo as ‘kinda funny looking’ playing him, Nucky Thompson is able to stand out to great effect.
While everything eventually comes back to Nucky, the broad scope of the show demands a quality ensemble. While everyone has their best moments, there are three who stood out from the beginning, and will help to share the Buscemi’s burden into the final season. Among such vicious and tough characters, Kelly Macdonald gives a more vulnerable and empathetic performance as Nucky’s mistress-turned-wife Margaret.
Although not completely innocent, MacDonald bridges the gap between the audience and the brutality of the show, and lends an equally tragic, but more personal storyline against the grand political narrative.
Michael Shannon’s zealous but slimy fallen Prohibition agent is one of the most interesting of the characters, and, while everyone rests in a grey morality, his troubles and disasters are perhaps more compelling than most of the rest, as he fluctuates wildly from one end of the moral spectrum to the other. Finally, Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White is deliciously hostile, ruthless and explosive, but is also a brilliantly sympathetic leader and someone who fights not only for his political allies, but also doggedly for his people and his family.
The early seasons of Boardwalk Empire had enough time in building the world and characters to cover such diverse themes as religion, fidelity, race, nationalism and family. As the plot begins to turn towards a suitable conclusion, such depth has, at points, fallen by the wayside, to be replaced more obviously with the story and individual characters. It is possible that some of the quiet intelligence of the past has transformed into more spectacular dramatic flair, but the overall appeal remains unblemished. No matter how direct it gets, the groundwork has been done so that it never becomes stupid, incoherent or superficial.
The final season must look to consolidate everything that has contributed to its diverse and colourful characters, as well as tie up loose ends both thematically and of the story itself.
Demanding quite a high level of concentration to keep track of every twist and character introduction, it is hardly the easiest show to binge-watch late into the night, but Boardwalk Empire has a tone and cast which has allowed it to compete with the most popular of shows. Buscemi’s fine performances are enough to place Nucky Thompson alongside Walter White, House of Cards’s Frank Underwood, Tony Soprano and the Wire’s Jimmy McNulty as one of the 21st century’s great TV antiheroes, while his supporting cast are engaging and affecting. It will be a shame to see the back of them, but an immense pleasure to watch their high and lows in the final throes of Prohibition.
Four episodes in and the secrets of The Honourable Woman are very slowly being revealed. The oblique, and occasionally self-indulgent, nature of Hugo Blick’s thriller has certainly perturbed some viewers (the swelling orchestra music and artistically angled still shots are growing a little tiresome, though are beautifully shot). However, those of us who have persevered look set to be rewarded.
A superb cast, led by the commanding Maggie Gyllenhaal, and intelligent dialogue have helped keep this viewer glued to the screen despite frustratingly slow progress on the central plot (why, oh why, does everyone seem so unconcerned about Kassim, the young boy kidnapped at the end of the first episode?). Yet, the web of seemingly disparate events and conversations is starting to come together, and the indulgently gradual progress is now only adding to the satisfaction. The large section of flashback to Nessa and Atika’s capture provided by this latest episode (‘The Ribbon Cutter’) cut through several layers of uncertainty, and raised many more questions in Blick’s carefully crafted narrative.
The showing of Nessa’s rape at the hands of her guard, Saleh al-Zahid, was difficult to watch but, perhaps, necessary in understanding the trauma experienced by the two women captured in Gaza. It certainly left no question as to the paternity of Nessa’s child who we can (probably) assume to be Kassim. The identity of the rapist’s father as the elderly leader of Fatah, Zahid al-Zahid certainly added another dimension; his expression of victory in having “infected” the bloodline of Eli Stein was truly chilling. Zahid’s “plans” for Nessa Stein also opened up a whole array of possibilities for the conclusion of The Honourable Woman.
This was all shown in contrast with a truly happy scene of the family gathered in celebration of Ephra and Rachel’s baby daughter Judith. Ephra’s fall from smug business leader to a man laid prostrate before the Israelis begging for help in rescuing Nessa from a mess at least partly of his own creation, was wonderfully acted by Andrew Buchan. Indeed, an interesting parallel was drawn between the two siblings as they both prostrated themselves before very differing figures.
With such strong female leads like Gyllenhaal and the excellent Lubna Azabal, the male characters seem weak in comparison.
A deliciously frank conversation between MI6’s Julia Walsh and Monica Chatwin (excellently played by Janet McTeer and Eve Best) told us how such a beaten-down figure as Stephen Rea’s Hugh Hayden-Hoyle was placed in charge of the Middle East desk. Yet, given the opening remarks of his wife after a disastrous dinner party, might we see a change in his lack-lustre approach in the coming weeks? Indeed, how did that FBI agent’s death figure into the overall picture, or was that merely an excuse to rack up some excitement for viewers?
The fifth episode ‘Two Hearts’ will have aired at the date of publication, so those of you already hooked by the series may well know some of the answers posed by the halfway point. But I’m sure that much will have been left just as uncertain. If you haven’t yet joined the viewership of The Honourable Woman, a few hours of iPlayer catch-up is surely warranted. Whilst I can’t predict the final course of Blick’s murky thriller, this is a bold series of considerable intelligence. The Honourable Woman airs Thursday nights at 9pm on BBC2. Get immersed.
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[/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.