Feeds:
Posts
Comments

As one of Ben Jonson’s most famous plays, standing alongside Volpone as one of his comic masterpieces, The Alchemist has enjoyed a wide and varied performance history since its Oxford premiere in 1610. Oxford University Drama Society’s summer production, currently running at Freud’s bar in Jericho, brings the play back to its original home in a new, tightly edited version. The production did not fail to deliver on its promise of being ‘Condensed and performed at breakneck speed’, running at only two hours long and eliminating the more peripheral characters, the Puritan duo Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias, to provide a slick and fast-paced evening of entertainment.

Leo Suter as Subtle ⓒ Sami Ibrahim

Leo Suter as Subtle ⓒ Sami Ibrahim

The greatest attribute of this production was its slapstick humour, the more bawdy elements accentuated from the outset. Howard Coase and Leo Suter somewhat stole the show, with Coase shining as Dol Common (particularly in his brief cameo as the Fairy Queen), whilst Suter’s performance as Subtle was continuous fun with a formidable variety of accents and comic guises. The initiation of Dapper (played by Helena Wilson) was a clear highlight of the evening, brilliantly foregrounding Jonson’s caustic mockery of the gullible and greedy, as did Mammon’s (Connie Greenfield) downfall due to sexual avarice.

Unfortunately, these performances were sometimes undermined by the acoustic, which was far too resonant for the speed of the dialogue. Obviously, as a touring production, the staging and design has to be able to adapt to various different settings, and the small set worked well by contributing a sense of claustrophobia that only added to the on-stage mayhem. In Freud’s, however, the surrounding space meant that many of the finer points of the script were lost to a continuous wash of sound (often exacerbated by musical underscoring), often making the play somewhat difficult to follow. Laughs from fart jokes and sexual humour abounded, but any wordplay or more verbally-based jocularity was unable to be heard.

Howard Coase as Dol ⓒ Sami Ibrahim

Howard Coase as Dol ⓒ Sami Ibrahim

Lack of subtleties aside, however, OUDS’s Alchemist tore along at a fantastic pace; this is no moral comedy but a true farce, exposing the very worst of mankind’s weaker elements. Face, Dol, and Subtle never really receive a true comeuppance for their wrongdoings, and Face’s eventual desertion of his friends to cooperate with the canny Lovewit only suggests that the two-faced precedent set by Jonson’s trio of tricksters will continue after the curtain falls. There is much to commend this energetic production, and it provided a thoroughly enjoyable evening of irreverent and memorable performances.

***

L. C. Boad

The Alchemist is showing at Freud’s bar in Oxford until the 17th July; it will then travel to Edinburgh. More information and tickets are available from the production’s website.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook 

This is the second of two interview columns focusing on the upcoming short films Waterbird and Catkins. In the following column, producer Ksenia Harwood discusses some of the logistical challenges that Waterbird and Catkins faced in pre-production, and the role of the producer in student filmmaking more generally. In the first column, which can be accessed here, the films’ director Alexander Darby explains some of the creative decisions behind the two films, including the films’ nature themes, absorbance of folklore and approach to sound design.

What is your role as a student film producer, and how does it differ from a studio producer’s role? 

As a student producer, my role is generally less clear-cut than that of a professional studio producer. The main similarity is that it is also my responsibility to write the budget, find the financing for a film project and make sure that the production stays within budget, which is much like what a studio producer would do. However, the rest of my tasks are variable and can be a lot more hands-on: I am essentially there to co-ordinate and supervise all the logistical aspects of the shoot, and troubleshoot any problems that arise during pre-production and on set.

I am also always there for the director to have some second opinion on the creative side of things. This means I am involved in sourcing props, doing the marketing, sorting out equipment rentals, helping with casting and putting together the crew: whatever aspect of the film you think of, really, the director and I are keeping an eye on it. As student shorts have much smaller crews than professional films but are also of a much more manageable scale to oversee, this is both possible and necessary.

Oxford City Boathouse

Oxford City Boathouse

How did you get involved in student filmmaking? Did you begin as a producer or try out different roles first?

I got involved in student filmmaking through being active in student theatre, where I started out as a producer from the very first term in Oxford, after producing a short play for a theatre competition between first-year students. As the film scene in Oxford has only blossomed in the past few years, there is a lot of overlap between people who make plays and people who make films. Moreover, each play usually makes a film trailer for promotional purposes. Producing one of those is essentially like producing a very small-scale short film, and it teaches you the basics of short film production. Last summer I was approached by someone who was looking to make a short, and I decided to produce it, having gathered all of the previous experience from putting on plays and making trailers. That was my first foray into student film proper! As far as I know, most producers of film in Oxford start out similarly.

How do you find the crews for student-made short films? Is it possible for somebody with absolutely no film experience to contribute to the shoot?

As mentioned above, there is a lot of overlap between the drama and film worlds in Oxford, and they are both relatively very small. So, often, you just know of or hear good things about people who have previously worked on projects. It is then a case of approaching the person to tell them more about your project and ask them to be on board. Otherwise, there are also mailing lists for both the drama and film societies that you can advertise on whenever you are looking for people to help out.

As for people with no film experience: it is possible to contribute, of course. Everyone has to start out without it! Usually those people would work as runners – helping out with bits and bobs on set – or as assistants to the director and producer. For these jobs enthusiasm is key, and you learn quickly, so previous experience doesn’t really matter.

LMH Willow 1

Lady Margaret Hall

Waterbird and Catkins will be shot consecutively over the space of four days, meaning that many costs (e.g. for insurance and renting equipment) are minimised. Does shooting the two films back-to-back cause any challenges to arise, and how do you plan to combat them?

The main idea behind shooting the two films back-to-back actually was that it would make life a lot easier! We will be using the same crew and equipment, and things like shooting permits and location scouting were carried out simultaneously, so it really feels like we are making one short with two different parts. The main challenge, to my mind, will be keeping track of all the actors who are coming and going, but I feel like that is a small difficulty to trade for an otherwise very streamlined shooting process!

The emphasis upon nature within the films meant that finding the right settings was highly important. Were you and Alex involved in scouting for the locations of the films, or was this done by others?

The scouting was mostly done by Alex and Nick Lory, our director of photography. They spent a week in early March going out to explore around Oxfordshire nearly every day, taking pictures of all the different possible locations. Luckily, the area has such glorious countryside that it was more a case of choosing between lots of fantastic alternatives for each scene than struggling to find a place! I was, unfortunately, in Paris on my year abroad at that point and so couldn’t join them in person. However, we would Skype after each scout and discuss their findings before making a final choice. Alex and Nick are very much masterminding the way the film will look together, and so it was only natural that they would be the ones ultimately selecting the locations. My job was mostly to make sure that it is also feasible to shoot in the places they liked.

Port Meadow

Port Meadow

Are the same locations used in both films, or was such overlap avoided?

The two films are actually quite different in terms of feel and content: one involves an interview by a river, and the other sees Mark, the main character, wandering dreamily through a copse, so there is no overlap between locations. This makes for quite an intense shooting period, as we will be moving around all the time!

You are planning to submit Waterbird and Catkins to a number of film festivals. Why did you choose these festivals in particular?

We have selected the festivals whose selections we love and would therefore be honoured to be a part of. We have, however, also tried to stay realistic and apply to festivals that encourage non-professional submissions, or ones that are meant specifically for student shorts, such as Watersprite in Cambridge and the London Lift-Off

Could you talk us through the process of submitting to film festivals? Is it something that anybody could do, or do you need an affiliation to an institution or arts funding body?

Anyone can submit a film to a film festival. All it takes is to research the festivals you feel your film fits the criteria for, and either submit online (there are a few platforms that are widely used and that let you do this, such as Withoutabox), or send through a DVD with the film. The main barrier is the cost: most festivals charge a submissions fee of up to £50, and printing plus posting DVDs is also expensive if done dozens of times. If you have the funds to cover this though, submissions are open to literally everyone! This the great thing about festivals in my view: it keeps them capable of surprising people, like Peter Strickland did, for example, with his film Katalin Varga, which he shot in Romania and funded with an inheritance he received. The film came out of nowhere to great success – I find such stories really inspiring.

The Kidneys

The Kidneys

Waterbird and Catkins have quite a modest budget; do the financial limitations of student filmmaking ever seem artistically constraining?

Of course the financial limitations are artistically constraining in a sense: you can’t do crazy stunts, build sets and hire out lavish costumes, which limits the pool of possibilities for plots and settings quite a lot. In a way, however, I feel like it trains you to be creative with what you have, which then makes you think outside the box if you ever end up working on a proper production. It also forces you to hone your skills and use them to their fullest extent – with minimal special effects, you can’t use such things to distract attention from bad camerawork, acting or directing, and it is easy to see when the production has been sloppy. This, I believe, is important for amateur filmmakers, as it means that the financial constraints force you to become better at what you do.

How can student filmmakers find funding in Oxford?

At the moment it is a really hard job: you have to rely on grants. We turned to college JCRs, drama societies, arts funding bodies like the King’s Hall Trust for the Arts and, notably, have been generously supported by the Vice-Chancellor. In future, however, there are plans for the Oxford Broadcasting Association to function as a film funding body, sponsoring films and making money back from screening them in Oxford. Alex and I will be working on making it happen next year as co-presidents of the OBA – we hope that it works out!

J. Wadsworth

For more information about Waterbird and Catkins, please visit their Facebook or Tumblr pages.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

This is the first of two interviews focusing on the upcoming short films Waterbird and Catkins. In the following column, director Alexander Darby explains some of the creative decisions behind the two films, including the films’ nature themes, absorbance of folklore, and approach to sound design. In the second column, the films’ producer Ksenia Harwood discusses some of the logistical challenges that Waterbird and Catkins faced in pre-production, and the role of the producer in student filmmaking more generally. 

In Waterbird, Tom (a student) recalls a night out clubbing with his friend Ed. A fight between the two is settled, but as they are leaving Ed becomes the victim of a tragic accident. A year later, Tom sits on a riverbank, hounded by a female journalist to talk about Ed’s incident. The journalist becomes moved by Tom’s words, and encourages him to dive, bird-like, into the river in memory of his friend’s death. 

In Catkins, Mark (a middle-aged man) has an argument with his wife, and while on a train to the countryside, he debates whether or not to leave her. While on a walk, he overhears a young girl (Katerina) waiting alone, with a bunch of catkins in her hands. She is soon joined by her boyfriend, who callously breaks up with her. Thinking she is alone, Katerina sings a folksong about a willow tree to soften her pain, and Mark listens, transfixed. Mark accidentally snaps a branch and Katerina notices his presence, running off in embarrassment. Mark holds the catkins that Katerina left behind, and decides against divorcing his wife. 

John Constable - Malvern Hall, Warwickshire (1809)

John Constable – Malvern Hall, Warwickshire (1809)

Waterbird and Catkins share clear similarities: in both, a protagonist troubled by a previous conflict escapes to the countryside and finds some form of closure through the experience of nature. Should the two films be understood as a kind of complementary double bill? 

I think you’re right to identify these common traits in the films. But they weren’t conceived as a double bill. I wanted to make two shorts at the same time for the practical reason that, as a student, it’s very hard to get yourself into a position where you can make a good short film. Tacking one film shoot onto another doesn’t make the cost or logistics inflate that much if they are short pieces. I think that the characteristics you’ve picked out are themes that interest me. You could also say that Lily, the main character in my short film The Wishing Horse, finds closure through her experience of nature as represented by the white horse.

I’ve liked writing a retrospective narrative in the few shorts I’ve made because it frees you up to work more impressionistically as a director. I think that is why an escape from a previous conflict features in these two films. I also like to write good natural settings into short films because they are free and easy to film at. When you’re starting out it’s much easier to make an excellent location look beautiful than an interior. You don’t need lights or production design. It’s all there already.

In both films, the nature experience that brings the protagonist closure is catalysed through an encounter with the female voice. In Waterbird, Tom’s conversation with a journalist prompts him to dive into the river in memory of Ed. In Catkins, Katrina’s willow tree folk song can be interpreted as activating the rushing of willow leaves, which is emphasised in the scene’s sound design. Was the rich relationship between woman and nature that seems to be drawn here a conscious decision? 

This was certainly a conscious decision but I didn’t think about the logic of it all that much when writing the films. We’ve recently had some improvisational sessions around the folk songs and the score. I had to explain the choice of using a female voice to one of the composers more clearly before we got in the room with musicians. We discussed a female voice being right in an abstractedly feminine way. I’m wary of over-intellectualising this, but in short we thought a female voice often sounds more calming or healing than a male one. The songs in both the films have a healing function so a female voice seemed like the right choice. I like how film music can add another context to the images. So I think it is more interesting, in Waterbird at least, to have a voice in the score that doesn’t obviously stem from the characters in the film.

Edward Hopper - Corn Hill (1930)

Edward Hopper – Corn Hill (1930)

The sound design of the Waterbird club setting employs an ‘underwater’ ambience. How did you conceptualise the relationship between this scene and the closing scene, in which Tom literally dives underwater? It seems like the treatment of auditory parallels between the two scenes could provide a rich sense of reminiscence or transformation. 

You’re right about the transformation. What I tried to do when writing the script was to link the swimming scene at the end with the club scene that happened a year before. Tom’s dive into the water is a tribute to his friend, borne out of regret over the evening they spent together in the club. Hopefully the sense of transformation will come through differentiating the sound design too. I think an underwater ambience in the club will sound quite subconscious, blunt, and unthinking, which should correspond to the two friends’ behaviour that evening. The swimming sounds should be crisp and this ought to match to the clarity of Tom’s decision to dive and swim in memory of his friend.

The sound design of both Waterbird and Catkins can be interpreted as adding further layers of meaning to the dialogue and visual action. What reasoning led to the decision to afford sound design such a high level of prominence? 

I think more films should narrate through sound. Cinema is often incorrectly defined as the moving image. It isn’t. It’s the moving image with sound. I like films that have a poetic and bold style; Lynne Ramsay is my favourite British director for this reason. I think if you move away from words and push to narrate through sound and images more, then you can tap into what really makes cinema unique as a medium. There isn’t another medium where music, sound, and images come together in such a unified way.

Another reason for this decision is that if you shift more narrative weight onto the sound – even if it’s as simple as offscreen dialogue or voiceover – then the corresponding image can be much less closely joined to the narrative. This opens up a whole number of possibilities. On the other hand, it also means that you can narrate more concisely. If you tell a story through sound and image at the same time then you bring much more information to the viewer in less time.

Patrick Caulfield - After Lunch (1975)

Patrick Caulfield – After Lunch (1975)

You complement the emphasis on sound with the incorporation of nature samples into the films’ score. How interested are you in defining – or blurring – the distinction between onscreen sound and musical scoring? 

Very. I like how going to the cinema is a total experience. I think that if you blend onscreen sound and musical scoring, then that’s a good way to create a more immersive experience for your audience. From a composer’s point of view, I’d also think that it’s interesting to start from some existing sounds rather than from scratch. If you start building a score from material in the film already then hopefully the final score might fit the film better.

I wouldn’t say I’m interested in blurring the distinction between onscreen sound and musical scoring, though. I think they should be very distinct from one another. For me, it’s important that the score is musical enough to add another point of view to the film; a film would become less rich if you lost the point of view that music can afford. I never like films without music that much.

Does musical scoring have a structural function within the two films? 

Absolutely. I’ve talked with both composers (Dan Jeffries and Nathan Klein) about writing what they have informed me is a ternary score. I understand this as A-B-A. Because the two films begin with a flash-forward to that film’s end, this musical structure naturally fits the narrative. I think the narrative in the first A section will particularly lean on the music. At this point the audience won’t know any of the story, but music can communicate everything about the story in a more abstract and very concise way without giving away the plot.

During the B section the audience will find out the story, then when we come to the last A section the story and the music should blend so that the audience fully understands it. Here I think the music will be able to work much more in counterpoint to the narrative, since the audience will know what has happened and what the music is responding to.

John Constable - Weymouth Bay from the Downs above Osmington Mills (1816)

John Constable – Weymouth Bay from the Downs above Osmington Mills (1816)

The protagonists of your films are frequently captivated by the power of lore; your The Wishing Horse featured a girl who found solace in a folk story told by her father. How is this theme continued in Waterbird and Catkins?

In Waterbird Ed plays his friend Tom a folk song from their childhood, in order to try and remind him how long they have known each other. The song is about crossing a river with a friend and perhaps provokes Tom to later dive into a river in memory of Ed. In Catkins Mark has a vision of a willow tree which features in a song he overhears. The song, along with the strife of the girl who sings it, later moves him to forgive his wife.

I think in all three films the folk imagery encourages forgiveness and acceptance. When I was studying theatre directing in Russia on my year abroad, Declan Donnellan, the artistic director of Cheek by Jowl, came to give my class a talk. He said that we tell stories so that we can understand ourselves better. That’s very simple but I think that’s why it’s probably true. I think the folk aspects of these three films lead to better understanding of the plight the characters are going through because they all contain their own small stories. That’s why I like using folk songs – they come parcelled with their own story.

How do you think your year abroad, during which you studied contemporary Russian theatre practice in St. Petersburg, has affected your approach to filmmaking? 

It hasn’t changed it at all other than how I would like to work with actors. The way Russians work with Stanislavsky is very different to how we do in England. I think in some ways it is a better approach and I’m planning to rehearse that way with actors during shooting. But I don’t think it leads to another style. Both ‘schools’ aim for an actor’s performance that is ‘alive’. The Russian word zhivoi conveys this much better; it essentially means a performance in which the actor is experiencing real feelings that are appropriate for the character. I would always chuck a rehearsal plan out the window if it didn’t lead to this kind of performance.

In the school where I was studying, the directors were very personally demanding of their actors and the criticism was often destructive. I think this is far from necessary and unpleasant for everyone. Quite often people also fell back on terminology like ‘unit’, ‘action’ or ‘objective’ when they were confused. I’d like to try and ban those words from rehearsal and just talk about things in plain, everyday terms. Lev Dodin, the current artistic director of the Maly Dramaticheskii Teatr in St. Petersburg, talked about doing this in a Q&A session I attended while in Russia.

Michael Fassbender in Shame (C) Film4 / Momentum Pictures

Michael Fassbender in Shame (C) Film4 / Momentum Pictures

 

You have noted the influence of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, best-known for his work on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), which shares with Waterbird and Catkins a refined and economical approach to nature settings. In future projects, would you be interested in turning your attention to contrasting landscapes, such as the framing of urban sprawls that Bobbitt achieves so effectively in McQueen’s Shame (2011)?

I do think Shame is pretty damn good. I would definitely be interested but I need to become a proper film director first! I think making a film like Shame requires so much expertise. The whole piece is very clinical and I think you need to be very exacting to take that approach to urban settings. They’re much more messy locations.

J. Wadsworth

A Tumblr page created for Waterbird and Catkins can be found here. For more information about Alex and his films, please see our previous articles on The Wishing Horse and film production in Oxford.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

Sarah Kane has gained some notoriety after the Daily Mail wrote off her first play, Blasted (1995), as a ‘disgusting feast of filth’. Her plays deal with, amongst others, topics such as rape, drug addiction, suicide, and cannibalism. True to form, Hypnotist Theatre’s production of her penultimate play, Crave, contains trigger warnings for rape and sexual assault, which provide the subject matter for the work. However, once the furore surrounding the presentation of “difficult” topics on stage has dissipated – these are hardly uncommon themes for many contemporary theatre writers – Crave seems to have little to recommend it beyond the Daily-Mail-driven hype. Although Hypnotist Theatre provided clever staging and compelling acting, the production rarely escaped the various clichés littered throughout the script, meaning that despite the production company’s commitment to ‘the uncomfortable’, I left the theatre distinctly unperturbed.

Written in a fragmentary style inspired by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Crave sets four voices identified only as A, B, C, and M in intertextual dialogue. The sex and gender of the characters are left to the director’s discretion, as are stage directions and sets. In this, Hypnotist Theatre managed superbly, choosing a barren setting with the four actors remaining in the same place for the entire act, illuminated only intermittently by spotlight. The staging complemented the disorienting nature of the text perfectly, the lack of physical interaction between the actors capturing the isolating impact that experiences such as rape, incest, drug addiction, and pedophilia can have. The main visual focus was provided by projections onto polystyrene cut to look like shards of broken glass (which, although in itself a worn trope, worked well in this context), reflecting ideas of fragmentation of identity that run throughout the play.

10333744_673970012672541_259737237749916072_o

The sparsity of the staging meant that emphasis was thrown entirely onto the actors and the text. The actors dealt admirably with such exposure (Ed Barr-Simm’s monologue produced the highlight of the evening): the script, however, did not. In their promotion for the play, Hypnotist Theatre write that Crave elevates ‘the beauty of language above all’. For this to be effective, the language used has to be admirable, to make you look at the subject matter in a way that makes you think, that unsettles you in the way that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita has the ability to do when you find yourself identifying with Humbert Humbert. Unfortunately, when the text contains such gems as ‘Dull ache in my solar plexus’ and ‘If you died, it would be like my bones had been removed’, this is unlikely. Crave marks a change in Kane’s style from the bold, provocative, and brash to attempt something more poetic, but the result is a peculiar combination of the two. Neither abstract enough to provoke contemplation nor graphic enough to shock, it produces lines such as ‘Where has my personality gone … I am an emotional plagiarist’ which, for me, simply don’t convey the complexity of the issues they try to address. 

While there were some lines that did give pause for thought, such as the moment where a child’s abusers are revealed to be her father and grandfather, the majority of the play lapsed into tired stereotypes that failed to spark my imagination. I realise that many will disagree with me and that Sarah Kane has a formidable following; indeed, for fans of Kane’s writing this production will be exceptional. However, sixteen years after Crave’s premiere so many writers have dealt with these subversive topics that their presentation in theatre is no longer a cause for controversy in itself, and Kane’s writing is open to comparison with later texts that have treated the same subjects with greater clarity and nuance. I commend Hypnotist Theatre’s ethos of presenting plays that are simultaneously ‘uncomfortable’, ‘dirty’, and ‘beautiful’, but for me, Crave didn’t quite manage to live up to this expectation.

L. C. Broad

‘Crave’ runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until June 14th. Tickets are available here.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

Parade tells the real-life story of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn jew living in Georgia with his wife. In 1913, he was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old girl, Mary Phagan. Not the most cheerful subject matter for an all-singing, all-dancing musical with score by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, The Bridges of Madison County). However, No Scripts on the Night productions have managed to create a show which is moving without being mawkish, and exuberant without being callous.

All members of the cast gave strong performances, particularly Alex Wickens as Leo Frank and Niamh Furey as his stalwart wife Lucille (Furey’s songs were some of the highlights of the evening). Niall Docherty also impressed in the contrasting roles of sympathetic, well-meaning Governor Slaton and ruthless journalist Britt Craig, particularly his second-half number “Pretty Music”. The American accents were much better than I had feared. The cast and band acquitted themselves well musically, dealing with what was clearly a difficult score. Sound problems plagued several sections of the show, but have hopefully been improved upon after the first night. The Keble O’Reilly is a difficult place to stage musical productions, and the band (particularly the drums) were often inevitably too loud for the ensemble numbers which were unmiked, but the principal songs were often excellent.

10395842_255104708027622_8525954605711739210_n

Isabella Ogilvie-Smith, co-director and choreographer, is presumably to be thanked for some of the most original and professional dance routines I have ever seen in a student production. Again, Niall Docherty stood out, but the whole ensemble showed considerable talent. If anything, there were slightly too many routines, occasionally grating with the action being discussed onstage, but most helped to bring enthusiasm and excitement to the text.

Parade is a well-crafted show; the book and score work together well to create different moods: at times optimistic, foreboding, threatening, and back to optimism again. This production does it justice in every aspect and, after ironing out some of the sound kinks, creates a compelling, emotional story of the perils of not fitting in in the Deep South, the strength of perseverence for love, and the state of human dignity.

****

K. Steiner

Parade‘s final performances are at 2.30pm and 7.30pm today. Tickets are available here.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

Reverend Productions’ Dracula is a present-day story inspired by, but not retelling, Bram Stoker’s Victorian gothic novel, managing to evoke the characters from the original while placing them in a new setting. The action centres around Lucy (Lucy Westenra), her husband Jack (Dr Jack Seward), her best friend Alex (loosely Mina) and Alex’s brother Johnny (Jonathan Harker, but also Renfield). Broadly, the plot follows the portion of the book set in Whitby, where Lucy is visited by Dracula, and Jonathan has recently returned, much changed, from his travels. But this production is set in a modern London flat, is born of “immersive, extended improvisation and a collaborative writing process”, and is much more than an adaptation of a portion of the book.

dracula 1

The cast are superbly in tune with one another, making the many little moments of friendship and awkward socialising in the opening scene funny and relatable. This, of course, makes the rest of the play, as chaos prevails, all the more shocking. The realistic portrayal of the characters at the start is what stops Dracula from feeling like horror, falling into tired tropes and plot devices and becoming just another ‘vampire story’. The programme notes point out that, in Bram Stoker’s novel, “Most of the action takes place in London, among sympathetic characters that would have seemed familiar to the book’s first readers.” It is this familiarity, now missing from the novel to a modern audience, that gives this production its edge.

As Lucy, the main character, descends into madness, infidelity or vampirism, as you care to interpret, themes of mental illness, addiction and the supernatural are explored in turn. Eleanor Rushton as Lucy is mesmerising throughout, but particularly as the play progresses, portraying instant changes in mood and character with sinister grace. The ambiguity in the plot, given there is no visible ‘Dracula’, leaves her and Johnny’s motives open and the ending unfinished, like all the best horror stories. Dracula examines dark corners of the human psyche; the consequences of freely making a choice that cannot be reversed, and desperation in the face of suffering.

****

K. Steiner

Dracula is on at the Old Fire Station at 8.20pm, 31st May, and at 5.45pm, 1st June. Tickets are available here. For more information about Reverend Productions see their website.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

Rough-Hewn’s entirely devised production of Frankenstein is a curious evening of entertainment. The company style themselves as aiming to ‘create provocative and invigorating theatre’; every production of theirs that I have seen has fitted this bill, and Frankenstein is no exception to the rule. The first half, shown from Frankenstein’s perspective, showed flashes of genuine brilliance, managing to inject dark humour into the original tale. The dialogue was sharp, the characterisation observant, the setting modernised. Unfortunately, however, the second half, shown from the Monster’s point of view, did not live up to the expectations of the first. Starting promisingly, it slowly deteriorated into onstage violence that lost the tension and shrewd humour that characterised the previous act.

10313852_552553161526771_1211100210790983571_n

The story bore a contemporary setting well, stripped of its Gothic archetypes. Director Harley Viveash and the rest of the cast deserve considerable recognition for collectively devising such a streamlined script, particularly for scenes such as that between Frankenstein and Henry in the pub, and Frankenstein taking the Monster out for dinner. Howard Coase and Nick Finerty as Frankenstein and the Monster were consistently superb throughout, with Nick Dolphin’s performances in particular standing out from amongst the strong supporting cast. However the biting humour that made the first half so enjoyable was noticeably absent from the majority of the second, and the final scene between Elizabeth and the Monster lapsed into moments of pure dramatic stereotyping. 

After the strong close of the first act, leaving me wondering where the play could possibly go from there, the decision to set the second half from the Monster’s perspective initially seemed inspired. The backing ensemble came into its own, throwing the Monster into complete isolation through his lack of language and subsequent understanding. Although the ensemble had been used to good effect in the first half, throwing into relief Frankenstein’s steady detachment from a superficial and indifferent society, it was most disturbing when seen through the Monster’s eyes. The tipping point of the second act seemed to be at William’s murder. From after this scene, astute characterisation was overtaken by viscerally depicted strangulations, with a detour through the Monster’s impossible fantasy about happy co-existence with another of Frankenstein’s creations. Although onstage violence has served Rough-Hewn well before (such as in last season’s Foxfinder), this production could perhaps have benefitted from a more suggestive approach.

Perhaps the most unsettling literature that engages with the ‘monster’ or otherwise socially outcast character type has the ability to make the reader empathise with the outcast in question. By the end of Frankenstein, despite the various murders that the monster has committed, Shelley’s multiple narratives paint a portrait of a wretched character driven to extreme actions by societal injustice. By the end of the first act, this had been admirably achieved; although Elizabeth’s death was by this point inevitable, the series of events that led to this point still bore the mark of tragedy, rather than the acts of a heartless murderer. By the close of the second act, however, the reverse was true. Whilst the majority of the adaptation lost nothing from alterations to the original (for example cutting out minor characters and events such as the death of William’s nanny, Justine), this seemed to be an aspect where the novel is both more nuanced and provocative.

Rough-Hewn repeatedly produce some of the best student drama in Oxford, and their shows always push boundaries and expectations. While this was not their most consistently strong production, the initial energy and momentum generated by the collaborative creative process of devised theatre has the potential to become some terrifically exciting drama. I would recommend seeing Frankenstein for the strength of the first half which produced thoroughly enjoyable, five-star theatre; I hope that their next devised play lives up to the promise of the opening scenes.

***

L. C. Broad

Frankenstein runs until Saturday 31st May at the O’Reilly Theatre. Tickets are available here, or for more information about Rough-Hewn please visit their website.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,045 other followers