theatre

Drama School, Rehearsals and What’s next for Phoebe Fox

Drama School, Rehearsals and What’s next for Phoebe Fox
If you haven’t heard of Phoebe Fox already, you are guaranteed to be hearing a lot about her soon. Gracing our cinema screens this year, Phoebe Fox will be starring in The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, the sequel to the adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel, featuring Daniel Radcliffe. On the stage side of things, Phoebe has played Lear’s Cordelia at the Almeida opposite Jonathan Pryce, and has worked at both the Royal Court Theatre and the National Theatre in London.

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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

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“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

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