Play review

A truly gore-ious play

Titus Andronicus
Corpus Christi
Weds-Sat 7.30pm
Rating: 4.5/5

It is a brave student that chooses to put on Titus Andronicus.

Shakespeare’s tragedy is a melting pot of everything horrible. There is rape, murder, dismembered limbs, cannibalism, insanity, decapitation and a whole load of nasty characters. T.S Eliot once proclaimed that it was “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written”.

With sentiments such as this, the challenge for anyone putting on a production of it is to use the ghastliness Shakespeare imagines in an intelligent, inspired way.

Set in ancient Rome, the story centres on the various families trying to out-atrocity one other. It is a confusing plot and unfortunately the cross-casting of key roles Titus and Marcus does not make it any easier to understand what is going on.

Not that these roles give disappointing performances; on the contrary, the commitment and intensity is incredible. Naomi Setchell, playing Marcus, gives a nuanced performance that evokes both sympathy and admiration, while Chelsey Little is harrowing, almost animalistic, as the handless and tongueless Lavinia.

The Goths are suitably cultish, arrogant, sexual, weird and evil. David Cochrane, as Aaron, is all of these things and worse. He creepily enjoys the pain and destruction. though his casually sociopathic behaviour does lower the intensity of scenes he is in.

This production has to be careful not to rely on the power of the performances of its lead actors, though. It is a fairly large cast of ten and some of the more minor characters lack focus, with a tendency to be carried away in the gory spectacles.

Helen Slaney, the director, has been innovative with this production,  transposing Titus Andronicus into something of a post apocalyptic world.

She has definitely made the most of the Corpus Christi auditorium, with its stone alcoves and cavernous atmosphere. She has also cleverly overcome the obvious logistical problems this play presents, like a prop list that includes a decapitated head. The only hurdle left is trying to make some distractingly fake blood look more realistic.

This is not a comfortable production to watch. Shakespeare’s play contains one atrocity after another and watching it is a draining and intense experience.

It is this intensity, however, that is the greatest achievement of the production. They successfully sustain an atmosphere of horror with a few accomplished performances.  No offence Eliot, but this production is neither stupid nor uninspired.

I dreamed a dream…

Goodness, has director Chelsea Walker ended up with a talented cast. This eclectic mix of Oxford stars is probably worth the ticket price alone: James Corrigan, of The Odyssey fame, this time swaggering as the profligate Demetrius; fellow Somervillian Lindsay Dukes as the hot-tempered Hermia; James Carroll (of Rent), Alex Khosla (Blood Wedding) and Ollo Clark (The Magic Toyshop) make up only a few of this all-star, eight man cast.

The Dream has been four days in the making, and already you can see how much it is pulling together as a piece. Fresh out of finals, the cast don’t seem to be feeling the strain of day-long rehearsals.

To call this an ‘adaptation’ of Midsummer’s Night’s Dream is misleading. What Walker has actually done is to rearrange and abridge Shakespeare’s epic play into a much more palatable hour-long performance, to fit the Burton Taylor’s late slot. She has also set it in a rubbish dump.

A strange choice, perhaps, but one that Walker insists “will bring out a more sinister side to the fairies. You just wouldn’t get that with a pastoral setting.”

In all honesty, there was very little of the ‘more sinister side’ in this production. This has the makings of a fun summer performance of a classic piece: sexy, funny, and well acted, The Dream offers not so much a twist on the original, as an enjoyable retelling.

Best of all, the characters actually enjoy what they’re doing. Some of the more classic insults (“you painted maypole!”, “rash wanton!”) were thrown around with spirited anger. The play fighting was fun and frequent – there was hardly a moment when one of the characters was not hair-tugging and pinning another to the floor. I felt like a little child on the sidelines, wanting to join the fun.

One almost wishes this was to be an outdoors performance: glass of Pimm’s and a sunlit lawn would complete the gay, frolicy feel of this piece.

Nonetheless, The Dream will do very nicely in the round. Ollo Clark gave a particularly subtle, glowering performance as Puck – something that would be entirely lost on a larger stage. The interplay between characters is going to suit the intimate feel of the Burton Taylor.

With just a little more polishing will really light up seventh week drama. I can’t sell it as particularly innovative or unusual piece – it’s not. What The Dream is, is good theatre. And if the idea of James Corrigan being used as a footstool by Puck doesn’t tickle your fancy, this clearly isn’t your production.

Not Russian into anything

Uncle Vanya
Anton Chekov
Merton Gardens
Weds-Sat 7.30pm
Rating: 4.5/5

There is a consensus among the Merton Floats players that this staging of Chekov’s comedy/tragedy should be, above all, funny. Meg Bartlett, the director, took it upon herself to synthesise a new translation of the play that suited this vision.

Fundamentally, Merton’s take on Vanya is that it is too often misconceived as exclusively miserable, when it has a real comic side. There is no doubting this is an ambitious project, but does it work?

Certainly the Merton actors are able to bring out the melancholy side. Tim Smith-Laing is wonderful as the eponymous Vanya: he even looks a bit Russian. Smith-Laing starts off un-naturalistic, but very soon starts to convey an increasingly believable sense of desolation, until he seems truly immersed in despair.

Sonia (Lizzie Hunter) does very well at conveying unrequited love, worrying about her ‘plainness’ and obsessing over Dr. Astrov – depressing watching. Yeliena (Meredith Kerr) is truly fantastic. She conveys elegance but also an ineffable sadness, a quiet resignation, which is both immersive and compelling. She finessed the role brilliantly; her performance is such a tangle of conflicting emotions – a excellent actress for this part.

So the play is sad. But is it funny? The Mertonites (and potential audience) will be pleased to learn now that as well as all this misery, the humour of the play is successfully brought out. Gout-ridden Serebriakov gives off a David Mitchell effect, making his scenes feel like a 19th century Russian Peep Show, with a darkly compelling voyeurism and humorous atmosphere.

The standout mixture of comic/tragic is Astrov (Bevil Luck), who can veer from the comic drunk, which he plays brilliantly (“I have flans for the future – plans for the future…”) to depressive and disaffected: two character types which should be all too familiar to Oxford students. When Astrov moans about his shallow friends and his intellectual contemporaries (they’re hypochondriacs, they self-analyse, they’re introspective) it hits close to home.

In all, Meg Bartlett and the Merton players have achieved what they set out to do, and this is an admirable achievement. Not all is perfect: the actors are hard to hear at times and occasionally there was a tendency to either gabble or face away from the audience, meaning whole lines were lost to the birds.

In spite of this, though, Merton Floats will certainly be able to float this well-conceived interpretation on the Oxford play market.

Buy, buy, buy.

French fancy par excellence

Dangerous Liaisons
Christopher Hampton
Trinity Lawns
Weds-Sat 7.30pm
Rating: 4.5/5

The Dangerous Liaisons cast is clearly a close, dynamic bunch of thesps. Combined with the acerbic and oddly timeless script, this should have made for great theatre.

It was clear, too, as they watched their compatriots act, that they love this play to bits. They have good reason to, because Rachel Bull’s Dangerous Liaisons is fantastic.

The plot concerns the sexually predatorial Marquise de Merteuil (Chloe Courtney) and her equally depraved “friend” and notorious rake Vicomte de Valmont (Alex Krasodomski-Jones).

It becomes clear throughout the piece that, trapped in a world where women are powerless, Merteuil has turned and utterly surrendered to her one escape: pleasure.

This comes out best in a speech which really showcases her considerable talent as an actor – Courtney fairly smoulders, and all her performance drips with cruelty, completely inhabiting the self-loathing, nihilistic world of the play.

Her counterpart, Krasodomski-Jones, might as well have been assembled specially for the play, a louche Lothario whose body language means he effortlessly fills the stage with a dreadful charisma. The only possible fault is on occasion his dialogue seems a little forced.

The kinks are minor, however, and the dialogue flows more and more readily as the play progresses. By the end, despite the “proper” language of the Ancien Régime, the dialogue ends up curiously naturalistic.

The rest of the cast members are equally good. Mademoiselle Volanges (Freya Willets) is perfectly cast as the virginal target of Valmont’s techniques – prim and proper and quiet.

When Volanges comes to her as she sleeps and refuses to leave her room, the tension is palpable. In what is already a very disquieting scene, Willets says to Valmont “Please, don’t,” so piteously that you actually feel uncomfortable watching it. It’s a scene that should remind the audience that this is not a man you can love to hate: he is a predator.

Similarly, the real object of Valmont’s affections, de Tourvel (Charlie Mulliner) is wound up and repressed, but her sudden outbursts of emotion, which could be jarring, come across as very believable.

Ultimately, they are all fooling themselves and are thoroughly miserable – the cast portray these empty, complicated people very well.

The set is minimalist, but effective, and if it ends up raining it likely won’t translate so well to an indoor venue. These are minor points, nonetheless and can’t detract from a very well staged, well acted interpretation. Definitely one to watch.

Very loud (laughter)

Tom Garton
Burton Taylor Studio
Tues-Sat 9.30pm
Rating: 4/5

A priest, a journalist, a politician and a drunk are sitting in a room together.

The start of a bad joke. Or a very funny play.

Fourtissimo is a piece of new writing by Tom Garton. Essentially, it’s a play made up of four scenes of four men talking.

Hence the title.

During these scenes the four guys talk about their dalliances and downfalls with women. The concept is a standard “what men talk about when women aren’t there” number. What makes this fairly standard idea stand out is the alarmingly high level of comedy.

The play is essentially a sitcom and Garton doesn’t miss a chance to make a bad situation more entertainingly awkward for his characters.

When the politician unsuccessfully tries to reveal an embarrassing secret to his best friend, a Roman Catholic priest, he gives up with the line “you go love Jesus, you crazy”.

Not so funny on paper, perhaps, but on stage… such is the comic timing of the cast. Rhys Bevan playing Jacob, the slightly dirty twisted priest, and Alex Jeffery as the aspiring politician are both particularly hilarious.

Deadpan line after deadpan line is delivered wonderfully and their interaction with each other is a highlight. The characters in Fourtissimo are supposed to be caricatures of societal stereotypes, and the cast’s slightly exaggerated style brings the comic scenes to raucous life.

However, when the action moves away from the silly stuff, Garton’s writing is slightly less confident, hitting the occasional cliché, and for some of the scenes the depth of character naturalism delivers was rather missed.

This play may not take you on an emotional journey of self discovery, but it will make you roar with laughter: a perfect production for the late BT slot, and a pudding of a play to follow hall.

All in all, Fourtissimo is bravissimo!

Closet thing to crazy

Closet Land
Radha Bharadwaj
Burton Taylor Studio
Tues-Sat 7.30pm
Rating: 3.5/5

Closet Land is a sinister production exploring an interrogator’s manipulation of a female author believed by the government to have planted anarchistic propaganda into her latest children’s story: Closet Land.

The interrogator is convinced throughout that the author is guilty, but as the play progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s a far darker reason why the author chose to write Closet Land.

The piece is a shocking examination of power and control, and the manner in which the interrogator is able to enter the author’s head. Adam Scott Taylor as the interrogator is fantastically creepy, exuding a sense of power and control, whilst at the same time maintaining a gaiety that is even more disconcerting.

Even at his first entrance, with the author blindfolded, he takes on two personae to menace her with a twisted ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine. He is the remorseful aggressor who in the first instance harms without question and in the second fawns, trying to correct his wrong.

The interrogator’s joviality is mixed in with the occasional slamming of tables and leaves the audience as jumpy and fearful as the author; being led into a false sense of security by his apparent warmth.

Scott Taylor’s portrayal is unnerving and yet shocking, and he captures the audience with the same power of manipulation with which he menaces the author.

Olivia Charlton-Jones as the author was also very successful as the confused and disoriented author. With no idea what she has done or why she is there, her pain, both mental and physical, contrast well with the seeming  joy of the interrogator, adding a disturbing edge to the dynamic.

At times however, her fear slightly missed the mark and felt slightly contrived, seeming to appear in full force and then vanish in the next instant.

For the most part, though, she was very impressive: working well with Adam to create a mesmerising dark scenario.

Closet Land will leave you uncomfortable in your seat and that is exactly what it should do. The interrogator is there to menace the audience just as much as the author, for is this not a piece on the tyrannical repression of the government over their people?