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It is easy to stage The Pillowman by accentuating its surreal, crowd-pleasing freak-show qualities. The play starts out in a relatively grounded manner: Katurian Katurian, writer of gruesome fairy-tales, is interrogated by a totalitarian police state in order to confess to the crime of writing stories, although he does not know the exact nature of his crimes. As he repeatedly insists, the stories don’t symbolize anything, much less anything political. The Kafkaesque quality of the trial aside, there is nothing too far-fetched about this premise. Soon, however, the play sets up an audacious switch into a surreal setting that partly or entirely takes place in Katurian’s imagination, and before we know it, fairy-tales are enacted in Technicolor, faces are bashed in, characters are choked on stage by pillows, and jokes about gruesome child murders and severed toes are being traded left and right. All of these can be played as circus spectacle, and the audience can walk away with plenty of guilty fun. However, Rough-Hewn’s production valiantly attempts, and mostly succeeds, in mining the material for as much depth and seriousness as it can offer. Although Martin McDonagh’s writing reveals itself to be less disturbing and less coherent than it pretends to be, the final product on stage is full of surprising depth. The cast and crew rescues an interesting but ultimately disappointing play in a production that’s well worth watching. Not content with offering mere entertainment, director Thomas Bailey and his serious-minded gender-blind cast have focused instead on the play’s more introspective elements.

pillowman_s

Such examples are detectives Topolski and Ariel. To be sure, actors Dominic Applewhite and Jonathan Purkiss did occasionally play up the vaudeville qualities of their characters when the humour demands it. However, even in their most comic moments, they never lost their menace. The perverse way they questioned Katurian, deliberately phrasing their questions to be misunderstood again and again, became not just a comic device, or a sick game they play with their prey, but a kind of coping mechanism against the inhuman brutality of their jobs. Claire Bowman portrayed Katurian neither with melodramatic fear nor a martyr’s pretense. Instead, she conveyed the everyman qualities of her character by focusing on Katurian as just a simple man trying to keep himself and his brother safe. He even loses his fear of the detectives for a minute when he recites a story with verve and passion, lost in his imagination, with Bowman helpfully adding flourishes with hand gestures – this enthusiasm being an important aspect of Katurian’s character to convey, for the audience’s acceptance of the absurd, surrealist portions later in the play depends completely on them believing in Katurian’s unconditional love for stories. Michal, Katurian’s mentally impaired brother, played by Emma D’Arcy, is portrayed as not just a simple, foolish figure of pity: D’Arcy foregrounded Michal’s struggle in figuring out the situation for himself, forcing us to see Michal’s thoughts as valuable in their own right. The gender-blind casting never jarred, and although the awareness of a new dimension of gender-politics – the oppressor’s roles all played by men, the oppressed all women – does permeate the whole show, it is very easy for the audience to lose itself in the action and to relate to the characters as universal human types.

This staging of the play fully utilised all resources of sight and sound in its reenactment of Katurian’s stories. In a particularly clever piece of stage construction, what seemed like the back wall of the interrogation room was in fact a semi-transparent mesh hiding a stage behind it. When it was time for Katurian’s dreamworld to explode on stage, the lights suddenly changed, revealing the stage behind in a dazzling flash that shocked and unsettled almost the entire audience. The percussive underscore, used sparingly and mostly in transitions, accentuated the spectacle without intruding. However, there were some mundane blunders in staging that marred the effect a little: for example, for much of the interrogation scene, Katurian’s face was hidden for the first two rows of the audience by the chair opposite him. Apart from such small moments, however, the staging of the play is realized with slick technical expertise.

Emma D'Arcy

Emma D’Arcy

Ultimately, the production represents the farthest direction one can go in staging the play as a serious examination of an artist’s interior life. For, in the end, despite its attempts at echoing Kafkaesque or Orwellian or even psychoanalytic themes, Martin McDonagh’s writing neither engages with politics, nor culminates in any coherent vision of the creative process. The totalitarian police state does not represent any political power but merely a writer’s persecution fantasy. The play’s central conceit about whether Michal committed murders based on Katurian’s story, and whether Katurian is therefore morally responsible, is so trite (it is, in essence, the question wrestled by the standard Sunday news editorial about the possible dangers of violent movies and video-games) and at the same time so detached from reality that it reflects nothing substantial on the value and purpose of art. Finally, Ariel’s incredible personal transformation, with a backstory that’s almost a caricature of psychoanalytical explanations of character, also doubles as a cloying, self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back that the playwright gives himself regarding the power of storytelling. Yet, at the same time, one does have to admit that the play has many funny, interesting, and thought-provoking moments in isolation. Although the playwright doesn’t seem to be able to bring them together into a unity, the production tries its best to achieve where he fails – and, incredibly, succeeds.

E. Kamalabadi

The Pillowman is running at the Oxford Playhouse until the 1st November; for more information and to book tickets, please visit their website.

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November 1st, 1714: Dr John Radcliffe, whose donations funded the construction of Oxford’s first hospital, the Radcliffe Infirmary, takes his final breath. Fast-forward three hundred years to Saturday November 1st, 2014: to commemorate Radcliffe’s death and to celebrate his life’s work, museums and organisations across Oxford are participating in the Breath Festival, an interdisciplinary exploration of the role that breathing plays in both the arts and medical science. The Ashmolean, Pitt Rivers Museum, the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the History of Science will be home to all manner of talks, tours, performances and displays; while this article discusses only some of the festival’s main events, the museums’ website will give a more detailed overview of the events and activities on offer.

The first major event of the day is a series of short talks from 1.30 to 2.30pm in the Lecture Theatre of the Pitt Rivers Museum, during which artists and academics will give various presentations on the broad subject of breath. From 2.45-4pm, in the Lecture Theatre of the Museum of Natural History, two complementary events will demonstrate the close relationship between breathing and therapy. Professional vocalists (and many instrumentalists) are expected to master their breath control in order to optimise their music-making, but rarely is the importance of the reverse realised: music-making can itself aid breath control. Liz Hodgson, who runs the Sound Resource project Singing for Better Breathing, takes this idea as a starting point, encouraging individuals with respiratory problems to sing. At 2.45pm in the Museum of Natural History, she will be welcoming members of the public to join in with some of the activities practised by her Oxford choir, which will perform in BREATHe later in the evening (see below). Following Liz, at 3pm, music therapist Bob Heath and Lucinda Jarrett, co-director of Rossetta Life, will each be presenting on their practices and discussing their importance.

breathepicture

A half-an-hour excerpt from multimedia project Pneûma will be given in the Museum of Natural History’s Great Hall at 4.15pm. A collaboration between visual artist David Ward, musician Sylvia Hallett and movement artist Miranda Tufnell, the performance interacts with both the physical space of the museum and its displays, creating a dialogue with the museum’s mammal skeletons. Its title, from the Greek meaning ‘wind’, ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’, reflects the performance’s exploration of the giving and taking of breath, of life and death. Throughout the day there will also be self-guided tours in both the Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers, with suggested routes through some of the museums’ vast selection of artefacts. Guides will be available at the Museum of Natural History information desk, and the tours are free to the public, as are all of the aforementioned events.

In the evening there will be two performances of Orlando Gough’s composition BREATHe (at the North Wall; 6.30pm and 9pm; tickets £14 full price, £10 concessions), developed by artlink in conjunction with Oxford Contemporary Music and Singing for Better Breathing. A result of research conducted with John Stradling, Emeritus Professor at the Churchill Hospital, Gough’s composition is a reflection on breath and the human life cycle. A trio of female vocalists – Rebecca Askew, Anna Dennis and Melanie Pappenheim – ruminate on birth, death, sleep, exercise, sex, disease and community. They are joined by Liz Hodgson’s Oxford-based choir, who depict scenes ranging from a drunken fiftieth birthday party to a woman receiving visitors on her deathbed. As thought-provoking as it is playful, BREATHe is sure to be a suitably breath-taking close to the festival.

J. Wadsworth

To book tickets for Orlando Gough’s BREATHe at the North Wall, please visit www.ocmevents.org. More information, including recordings of BREATHe rehearsals, are also available from the OCM website.

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A man is seated at a table with a black hood over his head. Through his interrogation by two policemen, Ariel and Tupolski, we learn that the man – unfortunately named Katurian Katurian Katurian, in true Hellerian fashion – is a writer, specifically a writer of short stories. Katurian is unsure why he is being questioned but assumes that it relates to his fictional works, which are scattered over the table in front of him. Katurian argues that his stories have no social or political meaning; in the oppressive dictatorship in which the play is set, such accusations could mean execution. As he learns that his gruesome stories were the inspiration for a spate of child murders, he begins to doubt how innocent his writing really is.

Emma D'Arcy

Emma D’Arcy

The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh’s seventh play, marks somewhat of a departure from his preceding six, the Leenan and Aran Islands trilogies. Gone is County Galway, replaced with a foreboding, unnamed, totalitarian dystopia. Like McDonagh’s screenplay for Seven Psychopaths, the play revolves around metafiction: in both works the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred as each starts to take on aspects of the other. As the play progresses, Katurian also becomes aware that what he is told in the interrogation room or in newspapers is not necessarily any truer than one of his own stories.

Storytelling is integral not only to the play’s plot but also its structure; interspersed throughout are theatrical depictions of several of Katurian’s stories. The stories within the play can be seen as postmodern pastiche, drawing heavily from the constructions of nursery rhymes, biblical stories, fables and folklore. They begin with the archetypal story-telling device, ‘Once upon a time,’ and end with (usually grisly) twists, drawing attention to the violence that pervades traditional tales for children.

The stage design for the Oxford production, directed by Tom Bailey, appropriately hinges on the interaction between these two worlds: the interrogation scenes take place forestage in a dull concrete setting, while the story scenes extend to use the area behind, initially shrouded by a gauze. As Katurian takes centre stage, four silent actors move behind him, complementing his storytelling with physical theatre. The props are similarly ambitious, mirroring the fantastical nature of the stories.

This production, uniquely, uses gender-blind casting, countering McDonagh’s tendency towards male-dominated ensembles by choosing to have Katurian (Claire Bowman) and his disabled brother Michal (Emma D’Arcy) as female roles. Whether audiences agree with the decision or not, it undeniably opens up a new realm of interpretative possibility. Is the archetypal creative artist-male here feminised and subjugated by posturing alpha-male cops (here played by Dominic Applewhite and Jonathan Purkiss)? Is the use of an actress to play Michal a comment upon the scarcity in literature and theatre of female characters with disabilities? Whatever the conclusions drawn, the production introduces gender politics to The Pillowman, a concern otherwise overwhelmingly absent from this and McDonagh’s other works.

Those interested in learning more about the uncertain postmodern narratives of McDonagh’s works are recommended to attend Dr. Sos Eltis’s talk at 1.15pm on Saturday 1st November; admission is free for ticket holders to the Saturday matinee performance. Others put off by The Pillowman for the same reasons, though, should be reassured that it remains not only accessible but also genuinely funny. The humorous touches, of which there are many, are not so much comic relief as part of a ghoulish whole. In any case, The Pillowman’s run at the Oxford Playhouse promises to be an impressive production of this chilling and powerful work.

J. Wadsworth

The Pillowman runs at Oxford Playhouse from Wednesday 29th October to Saturday 1st November. For tickets, please click here, and for a link to the play’s website, please click here.

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Patrick Modiano (born Paris, 1945) seemingly belongs to that rather large group of Nobel laureates very few people have ever heard of until they win the Nobel Prize for literature – very much contrary to the Nobel Peace Prize, which is nearly always awarded to a famous person or institution, this year’s Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai being no exception to the rule.

Being among those who had never heard of Modiano, I set out to discover a little more about the new Nobel laureate. He has, according to the Nobel Prize website, been awarded the prize “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation,” that is, the German occupation of France during the Second World War. According to that same website, 91% of the page’s visitors have not read anything by Modiano. Especially if the reader is not fluent in French, this is an unsurprising result: out of the thirty-nine works Modiano has written, from his debut La Place de l’étoile (1968) to his most recent work Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (2014), only eight have so far been translated into English.

Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano

A reader who has access to the Bodleian Library may be fortunate enough to lay their hands on Ring Roads (1974), which I duly sought out. This novella, a hundred pages long, is a translation of Les boulevards de ceinture (1972) which won that year’s Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, perhaps giving it the brief spell of fame that warranted the English translation. Ring Roads tells the story of a young man in Paris who, under an assumed identity, meets his father for the first time in nearly a decade. Written in very brief sentences, the work is highly descriptive. It starts off with scenes that are reminiscent of old photographs; the narrator voices this comparison at various moments, although the scenes themselves are striking enough not to have necessitated such explicit metaphors.

Connecting to the theme for which Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize, the story is set during the years leading up to the Second World War. Modiano, himself of Jewish origin on his father’s side, presents a narrator who witnesses various people’s perspectives on xenophobia and anti-Semitism, without revealing that he himself is the descendant of a foreign man. The narrator’s father, meanwhile, is treated as a disposable object by his companions. His father’s passive behaviour fills the narrator with shock on the one hand and contempt on the other, and only through shared memories do the two men manage to re-establish their family bond. This English translation of Ring Roads, published by Gollancz and translated by Caroline Hillier, is so far the only one in existence. Unfortunately, it has been terribly edited – it contains simple grammatical errors such as “it’s title” instead of “its title”, and “I’m you’re father”. In this light, it is very fortunate indeed that entirely new editions of his translated works will soon be published.

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The same publisher and translator also released a translation of Villa Triste (1975) in 1977, under the same French title. Fortunately, this work seemed to have undergone better editing. The topic of this novella is remarkably similar to that of Ring Roads: again, there is a young man who assumes a fake identity and has an absent foreign father. The young man becomes a swindler to keep up appearances, another familiar theme: where in Ring Roads the narrator turned to writing pornography in order to remain on a good footing with the men who were taking advantage of the lowly position of his father, here the narrator becomes a swindler who sells books with forged autographs and dedications from famous writers in them. This work, too, is connected to a war, but in this case it is the Algerian War of the 1960s that is taking place. The novella never loses its permanent connection to the former French colonies, as the narrator and his father seem to have come from Egypt. Here, again, the problem of origins surfaces: the narrator this time pretends he is a count from Russia. The novel ends, however, with the reminder that he is not to forget Egypt, a reconciliation similar to that in Ring Roads.

Modiano’s themes of memory and the connection between family history and world history are compelling, and very well treated in such short novels. The two novels discussed seem to offer a fairly good representation of the work that made Modiano famous in France originally, as they are among the few that have been deemed worthy of translation into English. So far, no British publisher has come forward with a concrete promise of a Modiano translation for this year. Yale University Press, however, will publish Suspended Sentences in November, which is a collection of three Modiano novellas that were originally published separately: Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin. According to the Yale UP website, the themes will likely be similar to the works discussed here:

“Shadowed by the dark period of the Nazi Occupation, these novellas reveal Modiano’s fascination with the lost, obscure, or mysterious: a young person’s confusion over adult behavior; the repercussions of a chance encounter; the search for a missing father; the aftershock of a fatal affair.”

As the two works discussed here are so similar, especially in their presentation of the main character, one does hope Suspended Sentences will offer some broader and more diverse perspectives on Modiano’s core themes.

K. Dihal

For more information about Patrick Modiano, please visit the Nobel Prize page.

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Fat Pig, directed by and starring Phosile Mashinkila, boasts an ensemble cast who respond brilliantly to each other and leave few dull moments, and is expertly-staged and enjoyable. However, playwright Neil LaBute’s attempts at subversiveness flatter to deceive – the social critique is a lot shallower than it looks.

The production undeniably achieves an electric immediacy, aided by Burton Taylor’s intimate size – intentionally, there is no barrier between the stage floor and the seats, so that the audience sits close enough that incautious leg-stretching may well trip actors. Suitably, the actors adapt their performance, dispensing with the customary stage voice for a more subtle cinematic naturalism, turning the audience into voyeurs who are, somehow, complicit in their gossip. The play’s drama is staked on the relationship between Tom (Jason Imlach), a handsome, successful young professional, and Helen (Phosile Mashinkila), a gregarious librarian whose weight becomes a sticking-point: we need to believe that the remarks of Tom’s friends, Carter and Jeannie (played by Brian Chandrabose and Martha Reed), who insult Helen for her weight, have the potential to hurt a romance worth rooting for. Hence the sizzling chemistry between Imlach and Mashinkila becomes crucial. Tom’s lack of self-confidence and need for genuine love, together with Helen’s humorous, likeable personality, meant that we really care whether their relationship succeeded or failed.

fat-pig

‘Fat Pig’

This play hinges on the delayed revelation of characters’ true motivations. For example, Tom tantalizes us for most of the play with whether he is embarrassed about Helen because of his inability to sort out his romantic entanglements with Jeannie (who he’s sort-of-maybe-dated in the past), or whether Helen’s appearance is truly an issue with him. Imlach has to avoid tipping the audience too soon either way, saving the revelation of Tom’s true motivations to the end. He succeeds in this task, which seems easy – it has nothing to do with big emotional set-pieces – but is in fact the hardest thing for an actor to pull off. Reed contributes to this ambiguity by convincing us that an entanglement with Jeannie really does have the power to make Tom afraid of being open with his dating life. Helen’s investment in the relationship is also well-dramatized: her self-consciousness and ultimate dependence on external validation is not overemphasized by Mashinkila but rather runs like a hidden current, with only clues to suggest it, such as the believable way Mashinkila deals with the stage business of handling food. These all contribute to the theatrical coup at the climax where everyone has their moment to surprise us with their true selves.

The authenticity of acting is only undermined in a few moments, which all lie in passages where the characters insult Helen due to her weight. The actors seem to find the lines so repugnant that they subconsciously avoid saying them for real. Chandrabose sometimes gives up the façade just long enough to make us realize he may be a lot nicer than his character Carter, a self-avowed “asshole”; Carter’s character-defining monologue is covered with a listless remorse, and Chandrabose makes no definite choice between genuine penitence and unashamed self-justification. Similarly, Jeannie’s vehemence towards Helen erupts all at once rather than building gradually, as if Reed wanted to get the bigoted lines out of the way as soon as possible so she does not have to truly feel them. These moments, consequently, are the only ones where the sense of truth breaks down – a shame, considering the complete believability of the rest of the acting. And who can blame the actors? For the characters, with the exception of Helen, are all capable of being extremely unlikeable.

Neil LaBute ⓒ Teri Pengilley

Neil LaBute ⓒ Teri Pengilley

Which brings us to the question of the text. Fat Pig is very consciously attempting to be a critique of society, and the production unambiguously treats it as an “issue play” with its choice of interval music, all of which are songs about fatness and body image. However, as the plot summary in promotion and programme material shows, it still centres on Tom’s dilemma of whether he is comfortable dating a “plus-sized (very)” woman and “stand up for love” (certainly not a dilemma that defines his life or which occupies him daily) over the dilemma of actually being a fat person in our society, where society’s judgements are daily facts. This in itself is not a problem; however, the play encourages us to empathise with him, to alleviate his full guilt, to give him the benefit of the doubt. Carter’s monologue, apart from doubling down on his own bigotry, also serves to reassure Tom that he is by contrast a good, conscientious, generous person for merely considering to date a fat girl. Even if done with a mocking glance, we are still invited to consider Tom’s inner struggle as, in some sense, heroic. He may be weak, pathetic, as he confesses at the end, but… at least he tried?

For all its attempts at subversiveness, the play is deeply safe, and no production, no matter how brilliant, can stage their way around its essential premises. How are Carter and Jeannie to play their parts? Either they are horrid people for being judgemental, in which case the audience sits smugly and decides “at least we’re more enlightened”, or the characters’ bigotries will have to be made sympathetic, in which case the play loses its social criticism. Obviously, any production with a moral compass will choose the former interpretation, and the audience simply affirms to themselves what they already believe in. Neil LaBute’s cast is so claustrophobic in number that the judgement of “society-at-large” (a nebulous entity if there ever was one) is represented by merely two people, leading to the overwhelming question: if Tom truly fears his friends’ judgements of Helen, why doesn’t he find new friends? Is the play really saying that “society” is perfectly horrible? Or just that two people – living in a non-descript American city, shorn from almost all concrete, material contexts – are perfectly horrible?

Textual ideologies aside, the production as a whole is a success: slickly staged, brilliantly acted, and full of humour and drama. The audience will not fail to be entertained and to forget time passing by as they’re watching. However, once they walk away, it’s unlikely to have changed their ideas about weight and body image, and there really isn’t that much to consider and to chew over the next morning.

E. Kamalabadi

‘Fat Pig’ runs at the Burton Taylor studio until Saturday 25th October, tickets £6/£5; for more information and to book tickets please visit their website.

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It seems at times as though the Oxford Lieder Festival’s project of ‘bringing Schubert’s Vienna to Oxford’ really has taken over the city.  A gruelling schedule is required to tackle the immense task of performing the entire body of lieder Schubert ever composed, over 600 songs, in just three weeks.  Highlights from the first week of the festival included an opening concert in the Sheldonian Theatre showcasing lieder and partsongs from across Schubert’s career and a performance of Winterreise by the mighty pairing of tenor Ian Bostridge and composer-pianist Thomas Adès, fresh from gaining critical acclaim for their spellbinding reading of the song cycle at the Aldeburgh Festival in June.

Ian Bostridge & Thomas Adès

Ian Bostridge & Thomas Adès

Picking out recommendations from the plethora of remaining events is not an easy task, but two late-night concerts instantly stand out.  The first is Imogen Cooper playing the Piano Sonata in B-flat Major (D960) in the intimate surroundings of the Holywell Music Room (Thursday 23rd October, 10pm). This sonata, Schubert’s last, is some of the most hauntingly melancholy music the composer ever wrote, opening a door to a unique and moving soundworld from its very first bars.  Imogen Cooper brings a wealth of experience in this repertoire, as well as the sense of control and lyricism it requires.

Secondly, Wolfgang Holzmair’s recital of Songs of the Night and the Stars is another exciting prospect. Accompanied by Sholto Kynoch, founder and director of the festival, the Austrian baritone will be exploring this important theme in Schubert’s song output.  It is a real sign of the growing stature of the festival that it is able to attract international artists of such standing.  Performed in New College’s beautiful ante-chapel, this recital has all the ingredients for creating a truly special atmosphere. Holzmair is following this up with a programme of Songs of Evening and Twilight, accompanied by Graham Johnson, in the Holywell Music Room (Thursday 30th October, 7:30pm).

The festival is not just attracting world-class performers of Schubert’s lieder to Oxford, though, but also an impressive range of scholars concerned with

Susan Youens

Susan Youens

his music.  Susan Youens, a renowned authority on lieder and Schubert in particular, is leading a study day on Die schöne Müllerin (Sunday 19th October, 11am-3:45pm in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, St Hilda’s College), a perfect way to prepare for Christoph Prégardien and Roger Vignoles’s performance of the cycle in the evening (Sunday 19th October, 7:30pm, St John the Evangelist). Moreover, throughout  the festival, the pianist and scholar Graham Johnson is holding a series of lecture-recitals covering Schubert’s ‘Life and Times’.

Amongst all this celebration, we should not forget that in Schubert’s Vienna only fragments of his music were ever heard in public, short songs and choral pieces inserted into concerts that mixed composers and genres with abandon.  Whilst Schubert’s songs and piano pieces may have been popular in the private salons, many of the great late instrumental works were probably only ever heard by the composer inside his own head.  However, in March 1828, just months before his death, Schubert achieved one of the highlights of his tragically short professional career: a public concert in Vienna with only his music on the programme.  The expanding of this event, unique in Schubert’s lifetime, to a full three-week extravaganza may not quite represent a literal adhesion to the notion of ‘bringing Schubert’s Vienna to Oxford’, but the richness and variety of the festival sends a powerful message about why this man’s music continues to matter so much.

G. Masters

For more information about the Oxford Lieder Festival, please visit their website.

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On first entering the set of The Oxford Greek Play’s production of The Furies – with its geometrical shapes, hard panels juxtaposed with soft, cavernous drapes, all drenched in an angry, nightmarish dark red – you are immediately gripped by an expressionist world of oppressive menace. This symbolic treatment, setting the play in an abstract no-where that aims to evoke the interior landscape of a psyche, seems to be the preferred treatment given by most directors to Greek tragedy. But conventions often exist with good reason, and the only measurement here should be effectiveness. The gravitation towards an expressionist staging of Greek tragedy comes from wrestling with the very real problem of making an alien and seemingly unrealistic poetic language appear truthful and convincing to the audience – all the more important for an original-language production. On this count, the production succeeds marvelously as it has the rare power to make the audience shiver. Arabella Currie, both director and translator of the helpful surtitles, imparts a remarkable unity of vision, taking care to use all resources at her disposal to create an immersive psychological world.

This production has the bravery to be fraught with contradictions. The chief problem a modern Furies (traditionally translated as The Eumenides) poses is its inherent misogyny: it is, as written, a blatant propaganda piece justifying the patriarchal basis of Athenian law. The play, for all its mythic symbolism, represents a definite historical moment: the eclipse of a matrilineal society by a patrilineal one. The male principle overpowers the female: the male is the superior virtues of daylight — logic, civilization, cool-headed justice; the female is “mother night”, earth, blood, animalistic revenge. As Clytemnestra’s ghost says to the Furies: “what are you for, except to do evil?” Aeschylus’ moral polarity couldn’t be made clearer.

Textual faithfulness may seem very difficult in the face of such ideology, yet this production unflinchingly faces the play’s discomforting values. Orestes, whose pain is rendered by Niall Docherty with a powerful reserve that steers clear of melodrama, may stumble at first before Athena, but he finally stands tall, every inch the man, when he is vindicated. Jack Taylor’s Apollo struts with Euripidean swagger, just as much a cocky macho mortal as a god, and never loses his certainty in victory even when the Furies outnumber him and surround him. Particularly uncomfortable to watch is the constantly-highlighted passivity of the Furies despite their formidable menace: Apollo grips them by the throat, one by one, and handles them at will; after the trial, they lie prostrate while Orestes stands triumphant. Athena, whose androgyny is well-conveyed by Kaiya Stone in her measured masculine stance, is convincing as an able judge, and Stone’s acting accentuates Athena’s wisdom so effectively that it almost makes one forget the horrific content of her verdict. Most crucially, Clytemnestra’s quiet desperation and impotent rage is conveyed sympathetically by Hannah Marsters in what is perhaps the stand-out performance. In support of the cast, the lighting effects faithfully reproduce the movement of a world from underground darkness to divine light, as the blue gloom and smoke is replaced by a resplendent, almost blinding golden glow. No attempt has been made to spare the gender politics of the text. Precisely the opposite: it has been highlighted, insisted upon. One cannot avert one’s eyes.

the-furies_s

Unwavering dedication to spectacle bridges the gap of two millennia to impose its visceral grip on the audience; the mythic poetry is not declamatory, or else mangled with faux-realism, but pierces to the heart with help from the stage’s visual and sonic imagery. Although the director employs a number of purely routine methods, such as dissonant percussive music punctuated with prehistoric flute-calls, copious smoke, and echoing sound effects, they do not draw attention to themselves and remain in the background to be experienced subconsciously. The staging creates a feverish dreamscape and there are some truly inspired images, such as Orestes carrying a transparent shroud wrapped with the burden of Clytemnestra’s body, or the Furies with their bodies contorted in such a way that they seem to be disembodied limbs. The awakening of the chorus from sleep into song, with its whirl of music, dance and rhythmic stamping slowly building up into a powerful contrapuntal frenzy, is a thrilling triumph. All this is capped with a superb command of the Ancient Greek language, spoken with such fluency that it seems not a dead but a living language, with its alternating register of spoken dialogue and poetic music.

However, the production also works extensively against the grain of the language as written, in its attempt to impose its own interpretation. Pythia, instead of confidently declaring the theme of the play in her prologue, spits out inarticulate ravings. Athena comes to her verdict only after a visible process of excruciating birth-pangs. Most crucially, the production ends not with the triumph of Athena but with the Furies occupying her altar, and their final speech, instead of demonstrating acquiescence, is bitterly ironic: Aeschylus’ platitudes about justice, prosperity and happiness is delivered with such defiant vehemence that the sense of the words threatens to break down into meaninglessness under the strain of so contrary an interpretation. The way the language of the play sometimes becomes only another spectacular effect is in fact the most significant flaw in the overall philosophy of the production. It is sometimes difficult to register the words being spoken at all; most notably, Orestes’ entire prayer to Athena is drowned out by the overly-loud orchestra, while the chorus also presents a difficulty in their most hyper-ventilating neurotic moments. However, this is not to suggest that it is the production’s duty to let the audience, most of whom are illiterate in the classical languages, hear every word, and it is clear why bold effects may be preferred in imparting the sense of the play. There may be no good solution to the difficulties of original-language Greek tragedy productions. From a spectator’s perspective, what is most important is that the actors speak with a confident command of their language; in this regard, the acting is near-perfect.

The task of bringing a Greek tragedy to life as closely as it would have been originally spoken is a truly delicate task, and it’s harder to think of a more challenging project than The Furies, so great is the gap between Aeschylus’ devout moral certitude from our modern sensibilities. A great production must face the task and strive to reconcile ancient and modern in an aesthetically-pleasing and convincing whole. Notwithstanding its flaws, The Oxford Greek Play production achieves this, and that is the most important success that any play can hope for.

E. Kamalabadi

‘The Furies’ is running at The Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 19th October. Tickets can be purchased from the Playhouse website.

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