Ian McEwan is one of Britain’s foremost contemporary writers, and is speaking in Oxford on the 4th September after the release of his new novel, ‘The Children Act’. He won the Man Booker Prize for ‘Amsterdam’ in 1998 and many of his books have been made into films, most recently ‘Atonement’. I spoke to him about his latest book, researching for novels, and literary audiences.

What is the premise of ‘The Children Act’, and how did you come to choose this topic?

More than one premise, in fact. Firstly, (much neglected by crime fiction), to investigate the character of the judge, and how that influences the course of a case.

Secondly, to explore an encounter between the courts, whose assumptions are generally secular, and deeply held religious belief. A stark example of this is the Jehovah’s Witness refusal for themselves and for their children, of blood transfusion.

Thirdly, I wanted to embark on a character study of a childless woman, professionally successful as a High Court judge, haunted by regrets as she comes to the end of her fifties and finds herself overwhelmed by marital conflict. The Children Act is, in part, a story about unspoken love.

How do you balance research and narrative – is it important for artists and writers to engage actively in scientific discourse?

I let the research shape the narrative. Sometimes they’re inseparable. Sometimes, I’m researching without knowing it. That is, I follow my own interests between novels and find myself being drawn into starting to make a fictional representation of what I’ve learned. As for science etc, the most important thing writers can do is engage in whatever interests them. I resist prescriptions for others. Science interests me, but obviously, it’s possible to describe a world (of intimate relations for example) without any reference to it.

Ian McEwan © Annalena McAfee

Ian McEwan © Annalena McAfee

You’ve said elsewhere that reading literary fiction is more widespread than previously – what defines ‘literary’ fiction for you?

I have no empirical evidence for my remark. Just a suspicion. Perhaps the extension of university education to almost 40% of the population is having an effect. I resist the ‘we’re-all-going-to-hell-in-a-handcart’ view of the world that’s so tempting for my generation. I was listening to a high-level ‘literary’ interview with Evelyn Waugh, recorded in 1953. The ignorance and stupidity of the questions would cure anyone of the view that the past was golden.

As for a definition of literary as opposed to pulp fiction – you know it when you encounter it. It’s more of an instinctive readerly recognition of a certain kind of seriousness of intent, pursuit of originality, awareness of literary precedents, (even it means rejecting them) and some hard-to-define spring in the prose, the invisible lever that moves the world.

You’ve said elsewhere that you’re ‘interested in how to represent … what it’s like to be thinking’. In which novel do you feel you achieved this most successfully?

Yes, capturing the flow of thought, however artificially, is endlessly interesting. I think it worked well enough in Atonement, where I tried to sustain a number of different points of view. I was also happy with the way it came out in Solar, which was related in a subjective third person. It’s not only scientists who stand on the shoulders of giants. Novelists have been the lucky beneficiaries of the sustained development since Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert of free indirect style – a liberating means of representing subjective states while also letting those states colour our shared world.

What are you currently reading?

I’ve just read my friend Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest – it’s superb. Now I’ll go back to John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing. In non-fiction I’m reading Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist. His book, Just Babies, is an attempt, and a very good one, to understand the origins of morality.

L. C. Broad

Ian McEwan will be discussing ‘The Children Act’ at the Sheldonian Theatre on 4th September, 7pm. Tickets can be purchased via the Waterstones website, priced £5. 

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This year’s most hotly anticipated novel in translation was Haruki Murakami’s The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage. Murakami has gained something of a cult status, and The Colorless Tsukuru sold over 1 million copies in its first week of release in Japan alone. Here, he returns to a world more familiar from his earlier Norwegian Wood than his last sprawling epic, IQ84. Regular Murakami readers will not be disappointed, for all his trademarks are here in full force; the bridge between dreams and reality, a fascination with sexual relationships, music as a unifying and purifying force. For those who have never read Murakami, this novel is perhaps a perfect introduction; it is not quite as surreal as The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and is altogether more introverted than a lot of his previous work.

The narrative is tightly constructed around Tsukuru Tazaki’s life and perspective, an intense study of one man’s journey of self-discovery. From the third page we are told the premise from which the novel proceeds:

‘The reason why death had such a hold on Tsukuru Tazaki was clear. One day his four closest friends, the friends he’d known for a long time, announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again.’

Even without the impetus of finding a missing cat, this immediately places Tsukuru within Murakami’s ‘questing male protagonist’ mould. His friends’ rejection has left him believing that he is ‘colourless’, the member of the group with no personality, unable to sustain meaningful relationships. Subsequently, prompted by his girlfriend Sara, he decides to visit his estranged friends to establish what made them reject him.

Of course, as with many of Murakami’s previous protagonists, Tsukuru is only colourless in his own imagination, not to others. Unfortunately to anyone who has read Murakami before, the outcome of his ‘years of pilgrimage’ (taken from Liszt’s piano suite of the same name, from which ‘Le mal du pays’ provides something of a leitmotif throughout the novel) is immediately predictable. There is a sense of revisiting old territory about Colorless; my primary criticism of this book is that it is too familiar. That said, these recognisable narratives and themes are of a quality that still stand head and shoulders above most literature being written today. Murakami dares to tackle difficult ideas and proves that they can be accessibly explained whilst losing none of their potency; the tale of the jazz pianist who ponders upon the nature of logic and belief being such a case in point, as well as Tsukuru’s discussions of free will with his friend Haida. Particularly intriguing is Murakami’s exploration of the boundary between realities and dreaming. The consequences of Tsukuru’s actions whilst dreaming seem to be of heavier import than those whilst awake, and Murakami leads us to moral questions concerning our behaviour and thought processes in dreams. If we are the same person when asleep and awake, is dreaming of an action the same as intending to carry it out; what if we acted upon something we dreamed? What if the two are indistinguishable?

Haruki Murakami © Marion Ettlinger

Haruki Murakami © Marion Ettlinger

Tsukuru’s relationship with his girlfriend Sara is curious; her presence is predominantly as a plot catalyst (it is she who encourages him to contact his old classmates), but even in her brief appearances throughout the novel she allows Murakami a platform from which to expand upon constants within human relationships, constants which illuminate the book’s main themes. The most compelling of these is the possibility of temporalities merging, with so little divide between past, present, and future that it seems that a linear conception of time must be rejected.

I enjoyed The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki a little less than Murakami’s earlier, more surreal works such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There are no significant narrative surprises, and very little is left to the reader’s imagination to piece together. Nevertheless, Murakami leaves the reader with plenty to consider after finishing the final page. The clarity with which he paints Tsukuru’s world and character is extraordinary, and it is to translator Philip Gabriel’s credit that he manages to craft such a compelling and intricate novel from the original Japanese. It is surely one of the best novels published this year.

L. C. Broad

‘The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki’ is available from most bookstores, RRP £20.00. More information is available from Haruki Murakami’s website.

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This review of ‘The Brothers’ is the first in a review column run by our editor, focusing mainly upon fiction in translation. Reviews won’t be limited to current publications but will also cover classics, particularly Scandinavian fiction.

‘Nothing can move a man once he has seen someone trying to kill his own brother.’

Second only to Iceland in terms of number of books published per capita, Finland is fast gaining a reputation as a distinctly ‘literary’ nation, producer of thought-provoking and intense fiction. Asko Sahlberg’s The Brothers (trans. Emily & Fleur Jeremiah), a 122 page epic set in rural Finland, is no exception to this. It is 1809, and siblings Henrik and Erik have returned from fighting on opposite sides in the Civil War. Every page bristles with tension as unspoken family secrets clamour to reveal themselves in a dark kaleidoscope of cinematic prose.

The brevity of The Brothers is deceptive. It packs far more into its 122 pages than one would expect, with what is left unsaid taking up as much of the reader’s attention as the printed words. Published by Peirene Press, an independent publisher who produces ‘literary cinema for those fatigued by film’, The Brothers is the first in their ‘Small Epic’ series, and it certainly lives up to the title. I loved how the narrative was passed between the novel’s main characters to allow multiple perspectives upon the unfolding drama. Each personality is carefully crafted with a distinct voice, from icy Henrik to his practical mother whose first appearance reads, in its entirety:

            ‘The hens are laying well. I was wise enough to pay for a good breed. I should teach the new girl to bake.’

Sahlberg is economic with his words; his writing style blends into the landscape he evokes, the starkness of rural Finland captured brilliantly through these vignettes devoid of florid descriptive passages.


His characters, also, seem to have a particular affinity with the landscape they inhabit. His descriptions from the Farmhand’s perspective are particularly noticeable; one of my favourite passages came with the increasingly wizened man taking chase after the young and agile brothers:

            ‘The path thuds, the moon casts fleeting shadows, snowy spruces twist and turn anxiously beside me … I lag further and further behind, I stumble, I nearly fall over, damn this old age.’

Animals, people, and landscape are intertwined as the story progresses, sharing a primal, elemental quality. This is set against the cream cakes and stiff dresses of the city, Turku – I particularly like books that leave me wondering what happens to the characters after the final page, and I was intrigued by what might happen to this family if removed from the landscape that seems to sustain them, if uprooted to the noise and lights of Turku filled with ‘the unkindness of busy people’.

If you enjoy atmospheric Scandinavian fiction, then this is a book for you. It may be short on murders when compared to Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, but it has as much familial intrigue as the best Nordic Noir. The Brothers asks more questions than it does provide answers and the characters even seem to keep secrets from the reader, ensuring that even at the close the family still has an air of mystery about them. It’s an intriguing exploration of a family torn apart by secrets and rivalries, and well worth a read.

L. C. Broad

You can read an excerpt from ‘The Brothers’ on the Peirene website. ‘The Brothers’ is available from most bookstores, RRP £10.00.

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I picked In Praise of Older Women (Stephen Vizinczey) off the shelf based upon the recommendations on the cover – it is hailed as ‘One of the great novels of the second half of the twentieth century’ (Harry Reid), in which ‘women appear as the sole refuge, the great consolation’ (Naim Kattan), ‘it is … for men who love women’ (Clarence Petersen). Written as the memoir of philosopher András Vajda and set in Hungary at the close of the Second World War, it was an immediate bestseller and sensation upon its publication in 1965. This edition, published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2010, presents it as a novel for the modern age, Jaromir Funke’s 1927 Nude glancing seductively from the cover. So, intrigued, and hopeful for profound insights into the nature of male and female relationships, I began to read.

The novel set off to a promising start – I immediately warmed to Vizinczey’s lucid, intimate writing style. He evokes 1940s Hungary with a charming clarity, and his descriptions of the young man’s sexual awakening are gloriously astute. András’s promising attitude towards women is laid out from page twelve, stating that ‘I’ve never met those she-devils you hear about: they must be too busy with those men who look upon women as fortresses they have to attack, lay waste and leave in ruins.’


However, it soon becomes apparent that András is precisely that which he rallies against at the outset of the memoirs. He proves himself to be a rather despicable protagonist with highly questionable attitudes towards women. Despite his many claims to the contrary, his main problem with younger women seems not to be their dress or immaturity, but that he cannot entice them to sleep with him quite so easily as married or lonely women of more advanced years. His final documented conquest is told that ‘I got the worst of you … Here you are, a wise and beautiful woman, and I have to content myself with memories of a silly bitch at Lake Couchiching. It isn’t fair.’ Clearly András doesn’t seem to have learned much from his encounters, from the endless love and adoration that women have bestowed upon him. This gives the novel its bitter edge; András cannot see that his love of women is narcissistic, that he loves them for their ability to boost his esteem and for the size of their breasts, but still believes that he is above the teenage immaturity that defines him. This is not a man who loves women, but a man who loves himself.

The passages where Vizinczey talks about European and Hungarian history are easily the most poignant of the entire novel, and his portrayal of András’s nomadic existence bears some resemblance to Milan Kundera’s writing, using sex in an attempt to cement together a fragmented sense of identity. Ironically, these observations only throw into relief how period-specific the rest of the novel seems. Upon its initial publication the content of the novel itself would have shocked and provoked discussion, but in its reissue the main interest is Vizinczey’s prose, trapped within the body of an unloveable protagonist. I feel that this book is best enjoyed as a surviving fragment from the 1960s, despite Penguin’s new packaging.

L. C. Broad

You can read an excerpt from ‘In Praise of Older Women’ here. The Penguin edition is available from most bookstores, RRP £9.99.

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Of all the books longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, the synopsis for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler) was the one that intrigued me the most (followed by Orfeo by Richard Powers and Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake). Told from the perspective of Rosemary Cooke, a woman whose entire childhood formed the basis of a psychological experiment run by her father, the novel follows her life after the disappearance of her sister Fern. True to my initial impression, the book is quite unlike any that I’ve read in a while; this is no standard coming-of-age story or boy-meets-girl romance. Infused with a subtle humour throughout, Beside Ourselves navigates family relationships, feminist issues, and animal rights abuses with equal candour. I doubt it is a novel that will make anyone rethink how they conduct themselves (except perhaps to pay more attention to animal rights campaigning), but as a quirky, entertaining read it fares extraordinarily well.

The first thing to say about this novel is that it has one of the best plot twists I’ve come across. Nothing prepares you for it, and the manner in which Fowler makes you believe in this sudden game-changer is formidable. However, the twist comes about a third of the way through the book, and after the shock of this reveal the novel plays out somewhat predictably under the new circumstances. Maybe one surprise is enough for a novel of only 308 pages, but I felt that afterwards there were moments where the fruits of Fowler’s research were laid out a little too obviously and it lost its critical edge.


Nonetheless, Rosemary remained a perfectly imagined and executed protagonist throughout. In parts she is quite dislikeable, eaten up with jealousy from sibling rivalries, but this only added to my belief in her as a character. Everyone has their flaws, and Fowler is unafraid to expose them without apology. Rosemary’s parents are tainted by ambition; her mother wishes her to ‘have an extraordinary life’, seemingly without regard to whether being extraordinary has been of benefit or detriment to her wellbeing. Rosemary’s friend Harlow has a veneer of loveable exhibitionist rogue that hides deeper insecurities, drawing people into orbit around her self-absorbed destructiveness. Even the more minor characters in the novel, such as Harlow’s boyfriend Reg, are afforded a nuance of personality that makes the book’s world irresistibly three-dimensional. It is this attention to detail that is the novel’s greatest strength; every one of Fowler’s characters is damaged, optimistic, and completely captivating.

Sophie Hannah has described Beside Ourselves as the ‘Best novel of the decade’ – high praise indeed. Is it the best book of the decade? In my opinion, no – amongst numerous others I preferred both Nemesis (Philip Roth) and Memories of my Melancholy Whores (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), although these are very obviously different kinds of book. Having said that, I really did enjoy this novel from start to finish – I finished it in a single train journey (which says both that I enjoyed it enough to devour in a single sitting, and that it didn’t make me stop and think too hard). It’s a brilliant exploration of family values – Fowler pushing the boundaries of family life to its limits shows that every child’s upbringing is a psychological experiment in some fashion, every parent attempting to mould their child into a desired image. It’s a fun holiday read, and I look forward to what the rest of this year’s Man Booker longlist has to offer.

L. C. Broad

You can read an excerpt from ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ on Fowler’s website. It is available from most bookstores, RRP £7.99.

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Inviting the audience to ‘experience Illyria as you have never seen it before; an iridescent and perilous realm’, Oxford University Drama Society’s summer tour production of ‘Twelfth Night’ promises to revitalise Shakespeare’s comedy of misadventure and false identity. I spoke to director Max Gill about interpreting the fantasy world of Illyria and its inhabitants, the practical challenges of staging a touring show, and the importance of music and design in this production.

Why did you choose to stage ‘Twelfth Night’?

Because I think it’s one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays to direct and conceive of. It teeters all the time between an overt comedy with lots of ridiculous situations, while at the same time there are elements of tragedy and quite troubling psychological portraits of people. As a director it makes you have to make quite bold decisions in what you’re doing, which is quite scary and potentially risky, but the freedom it gives you is really satisfying.

Has working with a student team and younger actors given you greater freedom?

I think so. I try and instill an atmosphere in the rehearsal room where everyone’s opinion is valid, no matter what role they play, whether they’re part of the production team or a musician. It’s very collaborative and I think young people starting off really appreciate that because it’s everyone’s show, not just the main actor or the director or producer’s show. Because these actors are young and dynamic they are willing to try things out, be bold and make mistakes about things which might not work out in the end but we can really play around with them. The group is really experimental and open to new ideas, and in that way it’s been a real pleasure to work with them.

How do you try and strike a balance between your directorial ideas and a more collaborative effort?

It’s important to set up the basics – a parameter and a framework within which the actors can play. You set the boundaries and within that the important thing is that the actors feel that this is always a decision which they understand personally, and they’re never doing something which they’ve been told to do and they’re not 100% behind. I always feel that if they don’t know what they’re doing at any point, 99% of the time that’s entirely my fault.

Duke Orsino © Oxford University Drama Society

Duke Orsino © Oxford University Drama Society

What sets your ‘Twelfth Night’ apart from any other?

It’s set in a place called Illyria which is one of those Shakespearean places where you’re not really sure where it is. Geographically it’s somewhere near Turkey and Greece, but that’s sort of irrelevant to the story. What we’re experimenting with is the idea that Illyria is a kind of psychological landscape, a state of mind. At the beginning there’s a shipwreck which brings Viola to the island, and we’re playing around with the fact that Viola might potentially have died on this shipwreck, and that she has slipped into an otherworld. Illyria becomes something like an afterlife and a liminal space which is a fusion of all periods of time mixed together. In some way it represent essential or timeless aspects of human nature.

The premise of the design and the visual aspects of the show is that Illyrian society is constructed entirely of shipwrecks that the inhabitants find washed up. They’re like magpies, so it’s a really eclectic mixture of different styles of clothes, and there’s a huge court made out of bits of dilapidated wood. At the same time with this otherworldly, dreamlike, abstract atmosphere we’re using music to play with the idea of simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar landscapes. We’re using live music with harp, harpsichord, and drumm, and we also have two opera singers who work as sirens who cause the ship to run aground, and are present in the Duke’s harem. The idea is that if they’re very recognisable pieces of music that are altered slightly and knitted together in a way that’s quite unexpected, it plays with the idea of simultaneous recognition and alienation. There’s also the idea of music being able to express something that words can’t. So often in the play we see people saying something that’s deliberately elusive and enigmatic when really they mean something else behind it. Music in Illyria is used as a means to transcend the restrictions of language, whether that’s the limit of a person’s own means of expression, or the limits of gender roles, who’s in charge, and how you refer to people.

Are the singers not singing texted material?

No, it’s a combination of things. We have some Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Handel, some Russian folk music – it’s a really eclectic mix. I really tried to find music that I think will never fail to move people, regardless of whether or not you “understand” music. Something I’m very interested in with music rather than language or gesture is why it affects people in such a way, a way that will always make someone tap their feet or feel sentimental. Can it trigger off universal memory, or universal understanding, regardless of where you are from? So music knits Illyria together as much as it ties it to our world.

Twelfth Night © Oxford University Drama Society

Twelfth Night © Oxford University Drama Society

‘Twelfth Night’ is one of Shakespeare’s plays with the most diegetic music. Does this help with the idea of a liminal space being produced?

Absolutely, we’ve given certain characters motifs and themes which will recur throughout the play. For example Sebastian and Viola share a theme which is a melody in inversion, put together by our composer Joseph Currie. In rehearsal, we also found out how much music helps the actor, particularly if you have a monologue. These are almost like psychological resting places for the character, speaking within their own head rather than the rest of the world of the play. If you deliver a line and are left in silence then you’re brought back to being you, but when you have music with you it provides something of a bedding for the character. But at the same time we are using a fair amount of underscoring. The music is very much part of the world and it accompanies most of the action in the background, as well as the moments it enters directly into the scene so characters are directly interacting with it.

Obviously your vision of Illyria demands quite an elaborate set – how do you manage that when it’s a touring production?

This is the big dilemma. Everything has to be collapsible and ideally fit into a suitcase. We have a huge throne, gallows, chandelier, platforms, hanging drapes and sheets which our production team are working miracles on to cut it all down to size and allow us to take it to Japan as well as around the UK. At certain points we can’t have as much as we would have liked, but the idea that the inhabitants utilise objects that they find means that we can use quite simple objects in a different way, and use what looks like a lot of aesthetic junk!

When you say there’s a cut-off point, are there things that you would have liked to have included that have been left out?

Yes. In the play there are very demarcated zones between Olivia’s house, outside her house, the Duke’s palace, and the garden, which are very hard to try and create without large sets, so we’ve had to try and demarcate it on stage. The concept with the set, then, is that it’s not a specific location in any sense. We’ve pared everything down to become more symbolic and suggestive, and produce an iridescent quality.

Twelfth Night © Oxford University Drama Society

Twelfth Night © Oxford University Drama Society

How are you using lighting to help create this effect?

We have a lighting designer who normally specialises in film lighting which is quite different from stage, but we want the lighting to become its own set piece. From a director’s perspective, I always find that people are a little neurotic about stage lighting – we have to see someone’s face as they come on stage, if they’re not in the middle of the spotlight then it’s a problem – but no-one in real life is lit properly. By experimenting with how a scene would change if it was between patches of darkness and pools of light, or characters control their own light sources with lamps, lighting will go a long way towards helping us create the atmosphere we are after.

How have you managed costuming?

We spent a long time collecting interesting pieces, with choice elements that represent the characters. Every person wears a few items which really signify their social status. We’re also getting some costumes from the RSC, an amazing dress for Olivia which was just on exhibition a few months ago. A lot of the costumes are based on Victorian dresses, and some are very much inspired by the commedia dell’arte (which I’m sure every director says!) But what I mean by that is that a lot of the costumes are white but dirty and tattered, and they can look like a quite sinister and sordid acrobat. Also, one of the difficult things about Twelfth Night is the idea of social status and the fluidity of people’s emotions and attentions which I think is quite a commedia dell’arte principle – you would have people playing different roles every day and engaging with the audience. A lot of people in the play are deceiving, pretending to be somebody else, so we have brought out the idea of masking, the pretence of the masked actor pretending to be somebody else.

Valentine & Curio © Oxford University Drama Society

Valentine & Curio © Oxford University Drama Society

Is the interplay between music and theatre something you’d be particularly interested in developing in future?

Yes, at some point I’d like to really work on the idea of combining opera and a classic play, which I don’t think is being done too often. There’s the fun of teetering between the pure gratification and entertainment of staging theatre, and then using the words of something like Shakespeare which, however much people like to pretend, is often obfuscatory and difficult to understand, and there are passages which just aren’t as interesting as others. With music and other media you can potentially cover these troughs.

Do you think this technique would work as well with a tragedy as a comedy?

I think it would work well because music, in a way, is very high-pressured and often overwhelming. It’s something that’s beyond our control – we hear it and it will take us where it’s going to and we don’t know what’s going to happen next. In that way you can use music to create an impression of paranoia, pressure. Music crops up in genres where you’re often expressing extreme states – film, opera – so you can absolutely use music for tragedy. And often, juxtaposition with the events that you’re seeing on stage – a traumatic scene accompanied by something jolly – can be particularly disturbing in a way that I’m really intrigued by.

L. C. Broad

‘Twelfth Night’ is in Yokahama and Tokyo before coming to Oxford in the Bodleian Old Quad from 12th-14th August, and London’s Southwark Playhouse from 20th-23rd August, and Guilford 27th-20th September. For more information or to book tickets, please visit www.oxforduniversitydramasociety.co.uk

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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.

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