Oxford

Review: Yesterday

Review: Yesterday

Having never been to the Burton Taylor before, I’ll admit to finding the intimacy of the place slightly confronting. Especially since for the opening night of Yesterday, a musical with an all-female cast (well, a cast of three) there were a fair few empty seats.

As the lights dimmed, I still had high hopes though. Yesterday had first come onto my radar when I’d seen a rehearsal video for Vulture Sessions of the cast singing ‘Here in this room’. It had promised exciting new student-written theatre and some great music. And at its best, this innovative production gave just that.

Whoever cast Yesterday got it bang on. The cast all have cracking voices and suited their roles perfectly. Yesterday tells the story of three women connected through their relationships with one man, the elusive Alex, whom we never meet. As his manically over-protective and unstable mother Julia, Georgia Figgis gave a powerful performance, able to switch from raging manipulation to expose a more fragile and cracked core beneath. Joanna Connolly plays Sally, the wife from America whose life is thrown into disarray when she meets Alex in a smoky Soho bar. Hated by Julia and conflicted both about her feelings for her husband and his feelings towards her, Connolly gave a moving and poignant performance. Last but not least, with a voice that could melt in your mouth, Jemimah Taylor perfectly captured the gradual corruption of youthful hope and innocence of Anna, a girl who becomes Alex’s lover.

This show came to life in the moments where all three women sang together. I wish there’d been more of them. The problem with Yesterday as a piece of innovative theatre is that it doesn’t quite hang together. Clearly there’s talent in the writing and music: just take a listen to ‘Here in this room’ which I hummed cheerfully as I cycled home. But it wasn’t all quite as good. Perhaps my main objection was the format itself. Described as a ‘musical in three halves’, Yesterday is really a series of songs, more often than not solos, connected by soft jazz. I wanted more interaction between the characters and more development: I wasn’t convinced I knew the characters at the end all that much better than when I met them at the beginning.

Undeniably lyricist Katie Hale and composer Stephen Hyde have some interesting and original ideas. The prominence of the drums, their rhythm a means to determine time and space in the intertwined timelines, was intriguing. With no set at all I liked the idea of defining place through the music. Certainly it captured the ebb and flow of London, but (and maybe I just lacked the imagination) I wasn’t quite transported to the capital.

Yesterday is an experiment that doesn’t quite deliver the perfect product. But it’s got a stellar cast and flashes of real potential and creativity from the writers. In fact, I think I’m still humming away…

Stuart Webber and STEP cruise to victory in Union Elections

Stuart Webber and STEP cruise to victory in Union Elections

Union Librarian Stuart Webber has defeated Treasurer Zuleyka Shahin by over 600 votes in the election for Union President, results released this morning have shown. Webber’s STEP slate won all the Union’s other major officerships: Librarian, Treasurer, and Secretary.

The hotly contested election saw a turnout of over 1,500 Union members, one of the highest in recent Union elections. The number of votes cast was nearly 400 higher than in last term’s election, in which Charlie Vaughan won the Presidency uncontested.

The final vote tally for President was 442 votes for Shahin, and 1,055 for Webber.

The election featured two primary slates. Webber’s STEP group promised “Speakers, Transparency, Experience, and Progress,” whilst the #NOWorNEVER campaign ran on a manifesto promising to improve access and bring “structural change to the Union”.

Niamh Coote, the STEP candidate for Librarian, won by over 500 votes. Noah Lachs defeated Brenda Njiru by over 300 votes for the position of Treasurer. Ssuuna Golooba-Mutebi, the STEP candidate for Secretary, won uncontested. 

A message on the STEP Facebook page said: “We’d like to thank you all so much for voting yesterday – we never could have dreamt of winning with such margins, and we owe it all to the help, support and love of everyone… We look forward to producing an extraordinary programme of events at the Union over the next two terms.”

President-elect

Stuart Webber (S): 1055

Zuleyka Shahin (N): 442

RON: 50

Librarian-elect

Niamh Coote (S): 948

Oliver Quie (N): 417

RON: 64

Treasurer-elect

Noah Lachs (S): 850

Brenda Njiru (N): 511

RON: 62

Secretary:

Ssuuna Golooba-Mutebi (S): 1138

RON: 171

Standing Committee:

Henna Dattani (S): 332

Mia Smith (S): 242

Tim Cannon (N): 187

Callum Tipple: (S): 187

Jonathan Tan (S): 165

 

Dear Elizabeth Previewed

Dear Elizabeth Previewed

In Sarah Ruhl’s play Dear Elizabeth, Chiasmus Productions have taken on a real challenge. Almost entirely comprised of letters between the great American poets Robert Lowell (played by Olivia Madin) and Elizabeth Bishop (Alex Sage), the play places an enormous burden on the actors playing the two. They have to bring what is essentially a collection of monologues to life.

 

If the performances at the BT Studio this week are anything like those that I observed in rehearsals, then this is a play that could really be something special. Both Madin and Sage breathed compelling life into the letters, reminding a generation that is so use to the all-so-easy media of Facebook and Skype how difficult – and yet rewarding – the maintenance of a long-distance friendship through letters could be.

 

Separated by miles in an age in which air travel was still an exotic rarity, Dear Elizabeth shows Lowell and Bishop’s discussions on poetry, mutual acquaintances (Dylan Thomas witty and sweary put-downs, staying in Hemingway’s house) and loneliness. Written by great craftsmen of the English language, however, the letters themselves show immense eloquence and a richness of good humour.

 

Perhaps the most effective aspect of Ruhl’s play that I could see in rehearsal, however, was less the use of the poets’ letters themselves, but more the meetings between the two that the playwright has imagined. In these meetings because of not despite all that has been said in the letters a gulf has opened up between the two characters in which there is so much to be said that very little can be said.

 

Instead, this sentiment is explored in beautiful prose in the letters themselves. Whilst taking many of the letters simply verbatim and allowing them to speak, as it were, for themselves via the mouthpiece of the actors, Ruhl’s skill lies in her ability to jump between time and place. Cleverly selecting the correspondence – and poems – that she employs, Ruhl’s play movingly depicts the difficulties of lengthy separation; at one point, Lowell berates Bishop for only finding the time to write a postcard.

 

In the rehearsal, Madin and Sage sat at opposite ends of a large table – directly facing each other so as to emphasise simultaneously the distance with which they are separated and their closeness in thought and spirit. In many ways, this seems to be the main theme – other than the sheer beauty of some of the letters – that the play seeks to explore: the extent to which a friendship largely formed by letters can be simultaneously close and distant.

 

In the hands of such a dedicated and convincing cast, this promises to be a gem at the BT Studio that is worth seeing.

Review – Rosmersholm

Review – Rosmersholm

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They say that the essence of drama is conflict, and conflict there is a plenty in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. The claustrophobia of the Burton Taylor Studio is made to feel even more close by the cast of four (one of whom only features very briefly) leaving one no chance to avert one’s eyes from the painfully strained relationships that are portrayed on stage.

In Rosmersholm, Ibsen depicts Victorian society (or its Norwegian equivalent) questioning its seemingly rock-solid foundations to the point of collapse. The free-thinking John Rosmer (Christian Amos) – a pastor who has renounced his Christian faith – struggles with his conscience and the weight of his illustrious ancestors, whose photographs loom ominously over the stage, to become a figurehead for radicalism. His friend and brother-in-law, Dr Kroll (Iarla Manny) attempts to prevent Rosmer from abandoning the beliefs with which he was raised and that his ancestors embodied. At Rosmer’s side is Rebecca West (Clio Takas) – the emancipated woman with whom he lives; despite her emancipated status, Rebecca still seems shackled by the society in which she lives. Lurking in the background is the ghost of Rosmer’s deceased wife, who has committed suicide before the play’s opening in a supposed bout of mental illness.

Christian Amos did a good job at depicting the moral trepidation of Rosmer. He is aware of the momentous path that he has undertaken in abandoning his faith and traditional morality to become a torch-bearer for the progressives. Whilst he did at times tend towards a Nick Cleggish over-earnestness, this suited the personality of his character well. Harry Lukakis put in a strong cameo as the free-thinking newspaper editor who attempts to shape Rosmer’s beliefs to the benefit of his movement. Clio Takas was skilled in portraying the mixture of flippancy, fearlessness and sincerity of Rebecca. She, like Rosmer, struggles to come to terms with the enormous transformation that will be brought on by her subscription to a progressive belief-system.

Of particular note, however, was Larla Manny as Dr Kroll. Kroll’s lines berating his old friend for abandoning what he had once stood for were, in Manny’s mouth, all dripping in sarcasm. One could, in Manny’s performance, really see a friendship that has been fractured by irreconcilable differences of opinion.

In terms of production, the director, Exir Kamadabadi, made good use of the Burton Taylor space. His set was sparse, but not flat – carefully composed, interesting the viewer but not detracting from Ibsen’s drama. Of slight annoyance, however, was the presence of a broken telephone as an intercom system. The telephone – without handle – was pointless; allusions to a studio apartment in the set were so slight as to be meaningless; the play would not have suffered from the loss of this pointless distraction.

All in all, Rosmersholm was a compelling piece of theatre. The darkness of the relationships within the play make it a difficult feat to accomplish, nonetheless the cast acquitted themselves admirably.

An ode to the north

An ode to the north

Coming to university means broadening horizons, being introduced to new ideas and concepts, people and cultures. For a Londoner born and bred, one distinctive group I have had to come to grips with have been ‘Northerners’.

People from ‘The North’ are not just people from Northern England. In fact it seems as if this place of origin defines them far more than I thought was possible. Perhaps because they are in a minority, at least in my college, they seem to cling on to their culture and strange ways with such passion and enthusiasm.

This can be difficult for ‘Southerners’ to understand. However, there are ways to make them feel at ease. Any right minded person of course knows that Oxford is pretty far up North. However, they maintain that they have made a treacherous journey down South, having spent at least 3 hours on the Train. It is important to respect their confusion and lack of understanding of geography.

It is also important to respect that they do not understand meal times. Never ask a Northerner if they want to go out for dinner, because they will think you mean lunch. As well as not knowing when meal times are, not to mention thinking that tea is a meal and not of course a drink; meeting Northerners has brought my attention to weird food combinations. Never before had I considered putting gravy on chips, but I have to admit it is not a bad combination.

Equally, I have had to come to appreciate their dialect. Seemingly, once you reach a point past Nottingham there has been a decision made unbeknownst to the South to deem the article ‘the’ as surplus to the requirements of their vocabulary. This can cause some confusion but if you nod and smile at what they say then there is little that can go wrong. And if the word ‘the’ is the only word they have missed out in a sentence, then count yourself lucky.

Northerners definitely have a different biological make-up. Having come from extreme weather conditions, they manage to never have to pay for coat check in any club, and wear frighteningly little clothes be it December or July. In fact, this being my first year at Oxford, I have yet to see how Northerners react to summer. As you can imagine, I approach the summer months with some fear.

It confuses me that I have a Northern friend studying Economics and Management when collectively, Northerners seem to have no grasp of the value of money. Basic economic concepts such as supply and demand and inflation do not supersede their sheer horror at not being able to buy vodka shots for £1 and Kit- Kats for 50p.

Finally, and perhaps most harrowingly, Northerners have no concept of what is and is not socially acceptable. No topic of discussion is too much information, and a conversation with a Northerner can end up being an outpouring of information, talking at you about everything that crosses their mind. This is not limited to friends. Northerners think that it is ok to talk to strangers at bus stops and queues in clubs.

What is needed is a sociological and anthropological study to fully understand these quirks and traits. Only then can we fully understand what makes people from the North, ‘Northerners’.

 

PHOTO// J. THOMAS

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