Interview: 12 Angry Women, this term’s ‘hot topic’ at the Oxford Union

Interview: 12 Angry Women, this term’s ‘hot topic’ at the Oxford Union

Out of the vast body of work produced by the American writer Reginald Rose, the court room drama Twelve Angry Men is the most well-known and frequently adapted piece on stage, film and radio, and has become an inherent part of many a literature course’s curriculum. Amongst the various adaptions and remakes are several theatrical versions of the drama that cast women in the roles of the jurors, however, Twelve Angry Women: A Rehearsed Reading will put a new twist on the gendered nature of the play according to director and OUDS president Katie Ebner-Landy and producer Rebecca Roughan.

Working with the original script by Rose, Katie argues that previous all-female renditions of the play merely refrained to “modelling the characters in their plays on the male characters; it wasn’t like creating a whole new atmosphere, just reflecting or transposing it”. She explains how this particular interpretation of the play challenges the conventional ‘gender-swapped’ renditions from a linguistic perspective: “I think it’s quite a challenge for an actor to be able to create a female character out of a male character, it’s a totally different way of approaching a text. (…) My aim was to have people read it through after creating female characters and try a come up with alternatives to ‘gentleman’, ‘boy’ or ‘guy’ on the spot; we had to change lots of stuff and the things that was most pertinent was not how aggressive they were to each other physically, but how they speak, their really confrontational style of speaking. You just can’t find an equivalent with women, with female pronouns, it just doesn’t work which we found really interesting, so we’re trying to keep that disjuncture and that awkwardness”. An example for the linguistic rearrangement of the script is the sentence ‘How would you like me to cave your head in for you, you smart little bastard?’ in which the original ‘bastard’ will be replaced with ‘c***’, a word Katie describes as a “more female insult”.

Rebecca highlights that changing the format of the drama from a stage play to a rehearsed reading is first and foremost an experiment: “We’re seeing where this goes. We’re replacing some things to try and make them sound natural, but we’re also leaving some things (…)  so the audience can almost exactly feel how jarring it is for a woman to say a man’s words”.

Although the reading is set out to explore the shift in power dynamics within the play by replacing the male juror with an all-female cast and, additionally, challenges the lack of great female roles in the majority of plays, as Rebecca points out, it does not have an explicit feminist agenda. “I think there has been a very exciting and fantastic growth of feminism in the last like two years”, says Katie, so for “students who are in this kind of environment of feminism, this might be a way in for thinking about issues and start to explore them” whilst Rebecca adds: “It’s quite interesting for people who don’t consciously identify with feminism at the moment, and we’re not setting out to put this on to ‘convert’ people, but because we think it’s interesting and we think it will be a great discussion”.

And with a Q&A session planned after the show on Monday evening, Twelve Angry Women is certain to kick off a debate around gendered language, women in theatre and feminism in general that will invite the audience into an on-going and much needed discussion around gender equality.

Monday, 3rd February (with Q&A afterwards) & Tuesday, 4th February (3rd week), Oxford Union, free entry; show starts at 8.30pm, but guests are welcome to join cast and crew for some music by all female artists from 8pm; the donations collected during the evenings will go to the Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre.

Endgame – Praise for the Ultimately Absurd

Endgame – Praise for the Ultimately Absurd


“Finished, it’s finished. Nearly finished.” The opening line of Beckett’s absurdist icon Endgame is a neat illustration of the play’s style: razor-sharp, black-as-hell wordplay and self-reference combined with an utterly bleak existential outlook. It is a titanic text to attempt to do justice, but Will Felton’s production with Fools and Kings Theatre attacks it with a visceral intensity, dragging it back from classroom analysis to the raw medium of the stage.

The cerebral stage directions become brutally corporeal. The description of the bumbling servant Clov (Jamie Biondi) as “unable to sit down” is interpreted as one of his legs being deadened by a gaping, bloody wound. The role is extremely physically demanding, but Biondi tackles it with relish, dragging the useless leg behind him like a dead weight as he staggers around the intensely claustrophobic Burton-Taylor (with audience stacked on three sides). It is Luke Howarth as Hamm, though, who dominates, presiding over the stage with his resonant, mellifluous voice, delivering lines with an earnest gravity that is constantly undercut by Beckett’s impish humour.

The humour is key to this production’s biggest successes. The flip-side of its seemingly unmitigated gloom comes to life on stage more than on page: Clov killing a flea in a wild fit of insecticidal rage is a moment of pure slapstick. Thomas Toles and Dina Tsesarsky are less strong as Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s parents imprisoned alongside one another just too far apart to touch. Although they achieve a rich mix of supernatural ethereality and human tenderness, the action starts to sag in their lengthy dialogues. In fact, moments where the energy levels droop are far too frequent throughout, as pace suffers amidst thick verbal density.

In the latter stages of the production’s 100 minutes without an interval, the cyclical refrain of “It is finished. Nearly finished” becomes more a glimmer of hope for the audience than an expression of apocalyptic angst. Even the stark but eerily beautiful set and the ominous sound design don’t stop this production being just a little less than the sum of its parts. All the ingredients for a great production are present, but it needs the spark of sustained energy and pace to make it truly memorable.

PHOTO/ Père Ubu

Production company banned from O’Reilly

Production company banned from O’Reilly

An Oxford drama production company has been banned from using Keble’s O’Reilly Theatre after two cast members “verbally abused” technical staff.

The unidentified group was removing sets and equipment after a recent performance, a process known as a “get-out”.

The technicians were reprimanding a male cast member for walking underneath a flybar in a ‘limbo’ motion when the incident occurred.

According to an email from Alex Bucknell, President of TAFF (a group representing set designers and stage staff), “it became apparent that multiple members of the cast had been drinking alcohol during the get-out”.

He described the consumption of alcohol as “absolutely unacceptable”. He also defended student technicians, claiming that “get-ins and get-outs from many shows would be far slower, more strenuous and much less efficient” without their efforts.

The production company was also fined their damage deposit, as well as the indefinite ban.

Emma Brand, President of the Martin Esslin Society (which runs the O’Reilly during term time), also condemned the incident.

“It was a serious breach of health and safety regulations and a serious display of discourtesy towards the technical staff,” she said.

“As the letter stated, the production company have been penalised accordingly.”

“I hope the letter will make student companies more conscientious about following health and safety regulations, and more aware of how the technical staff deserve to be treated,” she added.

Mary Flanigan, the University Drama Officer, said it is “important that the cast and the technical team of any production treat each other with mutual respect.”

“This was an isolated incident where high spirits got out of hand, and I believe that the venue, the production company, TAFF and myself all consider the matter closed,” she added.

Bucknell asserted that “this was an isolated and thankfully rare event”, and said “the vast majority of cast and crew members are extremely cooperative during get-outs and are appreciative of the contribution made by student technicians.”

The O’Reilly has a capacity of 181 and performs around four student productions per term.

Mind the gap: the glass ceiling still damages drama

Mind the gap: the glass ceiling still damages drama

Scrolling through the list of casting calls in 5th week’s University Drama Officer’s newsletter, female actors didn’t have much to get excited about. Of the 37 roles that stipulated gender, only 12 were female. 6th week has done much better, with 13 roles for women and 10 for men; thumbs up to Toby Huelin’s musical, In Her Eyes (7 female, 1 male) for tipping the balance. The general trend, though, is disheartening to say the least.

Emily Troup (Balliol), who appeared in Judgement at Nuremberg at the O’Reilly, says “I for one am really disillusioned with the whole drama scene, but I think it is a more universal problem and not just an Oxford phenomenon.” Ain’t that the truth.

Outside of Oxford, a 2012 study by The Guardian revealed that 38% of actors employed in 2011-2012 were female; the cause is a phenomenon often referred to as the ‘2:1 problem’, where there are twice as many male roles as female. Backstage too, a startling 23% of stage crews in the ten theatres looked at were female. Combined with the fact that only 14% of plays staged at the National so far under Nicholas Hytner, a period of eleven years, were written by women, it’s not looking great.

It’s not just a numbers game of how many roles are out there for women; the problem is also quality. ‘There are fantastic female roles out there,’ according to Troup, ‘but they are very much in the minority and often take some searching to find.’

Elsewhere, a recent article by The Cambridge Student has also highlighted a ‘historic tendency towards plays without ‘good’…roles for women.’ Disappointingly, too many plays staged in Oxford and elsewhere fail the Bechdel test; this requires at least two women to talk to each other about something besides a man and is a useful starting point in gauging the quality of female roles. In a recent article by The Guardian, actors such as Lesley Sharp discussed great stage roles for women, but many of these, such as Lady Macbeth and Hedda Gabler, fail to pass the test.

It is telling that many characters seen as dramatic milestones for female actors are still essentially wives and mothers, defined in terms of their relations to top male characters. Ibsen’s Nora is often considered a complex female role; but compare with Hamlet.

Even plays such as Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues and Cary Churchill’s Top Girls, which deal with gendered issues, seem to highlight rather than balance out theatre’s gender gap. With the dearth of complex roles for women, female actors don’t get to explore the spectrum of human interaction onstage that men do.

The problem lies with the artistic directors who don’t stage the right plays. The tendency is to reach for plays in the established canon, a lot of which, as Mary Flanigan, University Drama Officer, observes, ‘will have been written by white men, and from time to time, will have a predominantly white male cast.’ Gender-balanced plays, which tend to be newer and less well known, thus fall under the radar.

That said, it’s not all dramatic doom and gloom. ‘It’s a very good time to be a girl generally. It feels good,’ says Polly Stenham, playwright: if the gender-imbalance is disheartening then the increasing discussion about and moves towards gender-balanced theatre are something to be inspired by.

Earlier this year, the Tristan Bates theatre staged a dramatic showcase of ‘women in situations we are not presently seeing represented on UK stages’. In Oxford, production company Rough-Hewn is pretty much leading the Oxford drama scene in creating gender-balanced theatre. Of their last six productions, female actors made up 51% of the collective casts.

This is easy to achieve, suggests associate director Emma D’Arcy, when staging ‘new student writing and texts published within the last ten years’, a decision which ‘has led to a much stronger representation of women in our theatre’. OUDS’ Plays in the Pub last term hosted readings by female playwrights, including Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin, the first play by a female writer to be produced on the National Theatre’s largest stage. The OUDS committee has eight women out of their eleven members. Similarly, the Oxford Playhouse board has eight women out of thirteen members.

Women’s roles behind the scenes in theatre are clearly advancing; this just needs to translate to women’s roles onstage. We know what needs to improve, it’s all about the way we perceive what women can do. It’s up to artistic directors to put this into practice: as arbiters of what audiences see onstage, they need to be more conscious and imaginative when choosing repertoires. If you’re still undecided, do a bit of digging and find out for yourself (click on those hyperlinks, you know you want to). It’s clearly possible to achieve gender-balanced theatre: go ahead and do it. We dare you.

PHOTO/ ShakespearesGlobe

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.

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