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The mark of quality in student productions of original writing – of which James P. Mannion’s new play “Ridley’s Choice” is certainly a fine specimen – is in being able to engage with contemporary concerns and shed new light on this changing world without overburdening the play with details that narrow its concerns and mark it with a definite expiration date. And this engaging piece of satiric comedy-drama is nothing if not timely. It follows the struggles of failed playwright George Ridley, who escapes from disillusionment and despair by living alone in a cabin in the woods, only to find the society he’s been so desperate to hide from force itself on him. It surfaces first in the form of a teenager who’s hunting with his iPhone for the next YouTube viral video, and then a journalist looking to profit from a controversial “prophet” that can no doubt be commodified into excellent clickbait. The “Choice” of the title refers to Ridley’s struggles to keep his ideals pure, resisting the lure of publicity and profit. Despite the references to YouTube, Tumblr, Reddit, blog journalism, and other bits and pieces of contemporary set-dressing, the dialogue does not seem like it would date too badly 10 years from now. The playwright takes great care to make sure that the satire is situational rather than slap-stick, and that the biting dialogue builds its comedy not from cheap one-liners but from a sustained engagement with the precarious positions the characters are placed in. The plot, with a few snags here and there, is well-balanced, with scenes that build towards clearly-defined climaxes. Mannion is even willing to draw explicit parallels between Ridley’s situation and Thoreau’s “Walden”, reaching back in history to emphasize the timeless nature of the individual’s struggle against society. In other words, the play is built on sound foundations.

Director Jack Saville’s rendering of this claustrophobic play is realized perfectly in its visual stage design, although it leaves some room for improvement in the quality of acting. The staging is semi-in-the-round, with the set squashed into a corner of the black box theatre, while audiences are ranged on two sides to complete the square. This is a rare departure from the standard configuration of the Burton Taylor Studio. Naturally, the actors have a much smaller space to act in, which, combined with the fact that the the play is supposedly in an expansive natural setting, creates a nice paradox. The only attempts at creating an illusion of broad space are in the audio-visual interludes, crafted with great attention to detail by Rebecca Ajulu-Bushell and Alex Newton, though these interludes constantly undermine themselves by serving as ironic Brechtian devices. George Varley’s performance as Ridley conveys quite effectively the feverish madness of a hermetically-sealed life, and the supporting cast is certainly decent, especially Archie Thomson as a very funny Clive.

As a whole, the ensemble made many correct choices in performance. However, the execution on a purely technical level did leave something to be desired. There was not much sense of fitting their performance to the intimate size of the space; they instead chose too often to declaim their lines at each other. The movement of the characters was also uniformly strained, as if they were too afraid to have their back to the audience for even an instant. Consequently, more than once, the actors drew attention away from the action and to themselves by walking in an unnatural manner. In this case, having boldly committed to staging the play in-the-round, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have been less fussy about which way the actors ought to face. Varley, in particular, relied on physical mannerisms as a clutch and often bordered on telegraphing Ridley’s madness to the audience, rather than allowing his madness to emerge in a more subtle manner. The makeup design also had to take some of the blame – Ridley is described as an unwashed madman, yet there was a distinct lack of leaves in his hair and mud on his face, as if he were little different from a comfortable, smooth-skinned Oxford student.

It is hard to evaluate how much of Ridley’s lack of subtlety was intentional: all the characters in the “real world”, whether it is the youth, the journalist Polly Freeman, the interviewers Olive and Darius, or Ridley’s daughter Lucy, were more restrained in their performances than Ridley and Clive, who seemed to inhabit a different world altogether. Ali Ackland-Snow as Polly revealed just enough Machiavellian scheming to let the audience in on her motivations, but without turning her character into a stereotype; Clare Saxby and Keelan Kember’s bickering and inability to focus on the job at hand displayed great comic timing; while Chloe Wall drummed up as much sympathy for Lucy as she could without overstepping into the maudlin. In this context, Varley’s overacting could understandably be explained as a conscious decision; however, I still contend that there was an element of nervousness to his performance, and the way he returned to certain safe gestures, such as sticking his hands in his pockets (even when at an awards ceremony!), is perhaps evidence for that. Nonetheless, technical faults aside, it is hard to fault Varley’s interpretation of his character on a conceptual level.

Ridley's Choice

Ridley’s Choice

The text is not quite perfect but is consistently ambitious, setting itself high aims and meeting most of them. Certain subplots, such as Olive and Darius’s misunderstanding about the nature of their relationship, add tremendously to the central concerns of the play: there is no genuine connection between the two characters, although one of them deceives himself into thinking there is – this breakdown in communication serves as a constant reminder of the life Ridley has been escaping from. However, there are certain interludes, most notably erotically-charged dream sequences, that do nothing apart from rehashing what we already know, and I suspect they were kept in because of how funny they were in isolation, and not for their importance to the structure. A more significant flaw of the play is that, for much of the middle section, the audience is far ahead of the characters. Not wanting to give spoilers, it takes Ridley an inordinately long time to reach the same conclusion about Clive as the audience does, which came off not as intentional dramatic irony, but as the author being unable or unwilling to outsmart the audience. The social commentary of the play could also be strengthened with more attention to the concrete workings of institutions and social forces: there is perhaps not enough exploration of how exactly the media can commodify a person’s image, or exactly how controversy can lead to revenue. The media, in this play, is a simplified and monolithic force, and Ridley’s rise to fame has very little context to ground it – of all the madmen in this world, why him, specifically? What makes him especially brandable? These were unexplored questions that, if unpacked, would have given the play even greater depth. Then again, I might be setting an unrealistic bar. What the play does it achieves very well, and it deserves to be seen, discussed, and pondered over.

E. Kamalabadi

‘Ridley’s Choice’ runs at the Burton Taylor studio until Saturday 29th November. For more information or to book tickets please visit their website.

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Featuring a programme of twentieth- and twenty-first-century music loosely centred around the theme of war, the Oxford debut of chamber choir Sansara, an exciting group of talented young singers, was an impressive affair. The great technical challenges of much of this repertoire, full of complex cross-rhythms and searing dissonances, were met with great confidence. There was an intense feeling of assured communication between conductor Benjamin Cunningham, junior organ scholar at Worcester College Chapel, and his singers. This showed itself particularly in the fluidity of phrasing achieved in Elgar’s They are at Rest and the care given to the conclusion of Francis Pott’s Lament.

Oxford, though, is saturated with choral groups who can demonstrate an impressive sound and precision of ensemble. In such a crowded scene, what made this concert stand out was the manner in which these skills were put to the service of considered interpretations of the repertoire at hand. The music was brought to life by the understanding and highlighting of its crucial expressive gestures. For example, the sforzando effect that marks the final cadence of William Walton’s A Litany was particularly striking. As well as an eye for such details, Sansara and Cunningham were also able to sculpt large-scale structures highly effectively. Particularly telling in this respect was Arvo Pärt’s 1980 setting of the psalm De profundis for male voices, organ and percussion, music that is typical of the Estonian composer’s sparse and meditative tintinnabuli style. This work enacts a gestational emergence de profundis (‘from the depths’). It was thus a fitting opening to the programme and one that posed interesting challenges in its gradual process of intensification. Aside from some moments of hesitancy in the exposed opening bars, this was an impressive performance. The sense of awe created by the powerful sound at the summit of Pärt’s unfolding process of emergence was facilitated by the disciplined restraint shown in preparing that climax.

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The programme also featured two inventive new works commissioned by Sansara. The first of these was a setting of I Vow to Thee, My Country by Marco Galvani, an undergraduate student at Queen’s College who was also singing tenor in the concert. Galvani’s use of choral forces was imaginative, as in the use of repetitive droning figures in the inner voices with which the piece opened. Programmed alongside the Pärt, this work could be heard as tapping into a rich twentieth-century choral tradition in which one might also include the late John Tavener, that draws upon sparseness, repetition, and harmonic stasis to powerful effect. Cunningham writes in his programme notes that Galvani’s setting, ‘written in 2014 for Sansara, in this the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, sets the famous Cecil Rice poem in an almost other-worldly haze, and is imbued with a haunting nostalgia’. Nostalgia for what exactly?, one was left to wonder. To many of today’s listeners the notion of celebrating a patriotic love ‘that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best’, as Spring Rice’s poem puts it, might feel uncomfortable. To me, the ethereal, ritual qualities invoked by this kind of choral writing were a decisive turn away from the hymnic Gustav Holst setting with which these words are usually associated and with which any new setting is surely in dialogue. In this sense, the work seemed to reflect on the impossibility of returning to these early twentieth-century values and perhaps even their destructive power. There was indeed a ‘haunting’ sense of loss here in the growth of the afterworld ‘soul by soul’, but not one that could necessarily be reduced to simple ‘nostalgia’.

The other premiere on the programme was A Prayer of St. Richard of Chichester by Oliver Tarney, a composer based in the Hampshire area where Sansara was first formed. Tarney splits the singers into a main choir and a smaller semi-chorus, placed at the other end of the chapel in this performance. The fluidity of the relationship between the two groups showed a sense of dialogue, and even the possibility of congruence at the centre of the work framed by interruptions and fragmentation. As with the rest of the repertoire on the programme, Sansara overcame the potential pitfalls of this challenging writing with distinction.

Sansara

Sansara

Given the proficiency and musicality on display, it was a real pity that more attention was not paid to putting across text at times. The resonant acoustic of Worcester’s stunning chapel may have helped to emphasise the quality of sound produced by Sansara, but it certainly did not help with this issue of diction. Similarly, it was a shame that Tom Herring’s rich and dignified tone in the solo baritone part for Nigel Short and Mack Wilberg’s arrangement of The Dying Soldier was rather lost in the wash of sound produced by the rest of the choir in this venue. Another possible problem was the choice of a programme that consisted overwhelmingly of slow, spacious pieces. Although a reflective tone was obviously appropriate, a greater sense of variety would have been welcome. However, these problems of diction and homogeneity of mood were both addressed in Philip Moore’s Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, arguably the highlight of the concert. From the outset, with countertenor Alexander Chance’s excellent solos, there was a much clearer engagement with, and transmission of, the text. It is unfortunate that we had to wait until the end of the programme to hear the thrilling sense of dynamism and rhythmic attack which Sansara conveyed here.

The pressing contemporary relevance of exploring themes of war and conflict was emphasised by the bold choice of repertoire and especially the impressive new works on the programme, as well as the admirable decision to raise money for the Royal British Legion. These were fitting acknowledgements of the deeply tragic fact that our world today is still shaped by the legacies of previous conflicts, and the arrival and continuation of current ones.

G. Masters

For more information about Sansara and their forthcoming events, please visit their website.

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Last Friday marked the start of the eight-week Oxford Christmas festival. Many museums opened their doors with special evening events, from a festival at the Ashmolean to a moon-themed evening at the Museum of the History of Science. By far the most popular event, however, seems to have been Northern Lights at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The event centred around all things Arctic, and the museum itself was to be shrouded in darkness, to be explored by torchlight. Most enticingly, the museum announced that the soundtrack playing that evening would include a voice-over of Philip Pullman reading from Northern Lights – the first instalment of his amazing His Dark Materials trilogy, the stage version of which was put on in Oxford just last week.

The Pitt Rivers had created its hype very carefully. To say that their publicity campaign was successful would be an understatement: 3500 people pledged to attend on Facebook alone. A reader who is familiar with the Museum of Natural History/Pitt Rivers building may well be confused by these numbers: the two museums each have one large floor space and an upper gallery – how are all these thousands of people going to fit in? The answer is sad and simple: they didn’t. Starting at seven, by eight o’clock there was an hour-long queue to get into the museums. Inside, most people would have to face another queue of at least half an hour to get into the Pitt Rivers itself, which led to the rather odd sight of seeing more people standing in line along the many display cases of taxidermied animals of the Natural History Museum than actually walking among them, even though this museum had its own Northern Lights-themed events, which included an Arctic bar, children’s activities, and a band playing with the T-Rex skeleton looming over them.

Northern Lights at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Northern Lights at the Pitt Rivers Museum

So, imagine someone would have stood in line for an hour and a half to get into the Northern Lights exhibition. Would it have been worth it?

Beautiful as it usually is, the hall looked even more impressive in twilight – to call it ‘dark’ would be an overstatement, and with many children visiting, darkness would have been too dangerous anyway. The torches were certainly necessary, to look into the display cabinets and read the explanations. And the shrunken heads, of course, already strange and creepy to see in full daylight, drew furtive whispers from a crowd of onlookers as they looked positively terrifying by torchlight.

Unfortunately, however, the soundtrack playing in the background proved to be a strange mix that did not always blend well. It consisted of “natural sounds from Arctic regions” and “samples of indigenous music” which indeed worked very well with the objects on display, but Pullman’s reading was drowned out too much by the large crowd to follow the story well enough to be able to fit it in with the surroundings. The final part of the soundtrack was filled by “Museum staff discussing Arctic objects on display”, and this was a strange choice indeed – whenever one of these sections started, it sounded as if a museum staff member was making an announcement to the crowd over the intercom, interrupting the music.

Pitt Rivers Museum in the daytime

Pitt Rivers Museum in the daytime

The museum staff themselves seemed rather flustered by the overwhelming number of people attending the event. It is unfortunate indeed that the event had a turnout such as this, because all in all, the crowds meant it would not have been worth a wait of an hour and a half to get into Northern Lights. For those who had never been to the museum before, this must have been an impressive sight indeed. Yet for those who had, although it was beautiful, it did not add enough novelty to the wealth the museum normally offers to reward such perseverance. This is a shame, since such special events are what would draw a previous visitor to a museum once more.

This, however, should not mean that the Pitt Rivers should avoid multimedia events in the future, it just might require more limited entrance numbers. The popularity of this event clearly showed that there is a large audience for such museum lates, and that they appeal to visitors of all ages. Considering the limitations of the venue, the two museums might have been better off by merging their events completely (am I opening a can of worms here?) in order to create one big event – with one single queue. If anything, Northern Lights proved that interactive events are more popular than some museums might anticipate, which should mean that we will hopefully be seeing more of them in the future.

K. Dihal

For more information about the Pitt Rivers Museum and their upcoming events, please visit their website.

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The Path to Abbey Ruins © Karyn Peyton

The Path to Abbey Ruins © Karyn Peyton

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Introvert © Karyn Peyton

Karyn is a visiting student studying history (and coffee on the side) at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford; she is originally from the middle of the desert in Arizona. She bought her first high-end camera five months ago, and Oxford has kept her photographing ever since.

We are currently looking for photography submissions on the theme of ‘Hidden Oxford’. If you would like to submit your photographs to the Review, please email the editor at theoxfordculturereview@gmail.com

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Poet Leo Mercer is currently President of the Oxford University Poetry Society. He regularly blogs and tweets both about poetry, and his own poems. I spoke to him about the relationship between creativity and technology, developing language, and poetry’s place in society.

Who are Oxford University Poetry Society, and what do they do?

The society’s been around since the 1950s and has been running consistently since then. At the moment my conception of it is that it does a number of things. We try and cover all bases, so various aspects are represented by the society. There are reading groups, writing workshops, and open mics where you can read your work, and if you like listening you can come to both the open mics and to readings by established poets. If you’re interested in reciting poetry then we’re trying to start a group where people walk down Broad Street and recite classic poetry in public, Dead Poets’ Society style.

Another big thing we’re doing this year is moving into collaboration with other university societies, to try and draw links between poetry and everything else that exists! We’ve just run a filmpoem competition, a film poem being the equivalent of a music video for a poem. People sent in recordings of themselves reading their poems, and films were made from a selection, creating a set of images that are appropriate to the poem and characterise it in some way. I think that any two art forms have multiple collaborative potentials, but film and poems work together particularly well. A series of poetic images can almost seem stuck together abstractly, and you need something to bring them together and unify them. Poetry fulfils this demand. Equally, one limitation of poetry is that it’s black and white shapes on a page, and the amount of energy that it takes to get into that and make that world real is immense. Having a visual impetus sucks you in and makes the images distinct for you.

You run a termly magazine called Ash. What do you look for when you’re selecting poetry for publications?

Our idea this term is to go for more political poetry. I think there’s a tendency, particularly among undergraduates, to write about their very immediate experience and present a poem saying ‘Here’s something about undergraduate life’. The goal with the magazine this term is to think bigger, in political and social terms. As part of the collaborations I mentioned above, the editors of the magazine are in touch with various societies with particular social or political affiliations, so we can try to get a broad representation from different voices. We want to hear from people who don’t necessarily conceive of themselves as poets but know how to use language and have got things to say, as well as more conventional poetry.

Do you think, then, that poetry has a certain function in society?

I think that like art in general, it does have a function, and that is that for many people it’s what makes life worth living. It has a function in a sense that it allows more people to live the life that they want to be able to live. There are some types of poetry that particularly lend themselves to politics – spoken word is particularly good at getting out there and finding the words that will stir you up inside. I’m not sure I see page poetry as having an explicitly politically active function as I don’t think you can expect it to do that, but it’s a way for people to express their political sensibilities in a nuanced way. Poetry doesn’t change the world, but it changes people, and people change the world.

Is there a distinction to be made between political and ideological art?

Yes. This is something I think about a lot, because often when people say that ‘all art is x’, they then make a jump and say ‘all art is x therefore my art has to flag that up explicitly.’ But if all art is x, then it doesn’t need to be explicitly flagged up because it’s there already.

Poet Michael Schmidt

Poet Michael Schmidt

How do you feel that technology impacts upon poetry? Poet and editor Michael Schmidt has said that ‘Technology is a part of imagination’, but do you feel that there is a slight reluctance to acknowledge the role of technology in the creative process?

I think part of the problem here is with education. Because education is very historically based it tends to impart a particular idea of what poetry is, so by the time you reach university it’s then very difficult to conceive of how this huge range of linguistic raw materials made accessible via the internet can be used to create poetry. I write poetweets, and to some extent I’ve experienced pockets of reluctance when people can’t work out the language – it’s seen as ‘internet language’, and you can’t use that in a poem!

This attitude is definitely something that needs to be changed. My sense is that at any one time there are interesting things going on and there will be poets, artists, who will think that this is the point where things have to change. Of course people will be sceptical, but it’s the responsibility of the poet to show that their idea works. In return, it’s the community’s responsibility to be always open to new ideas and concepts.

How would you describe a poetweet?

In one sense it’s a poem that takes the space of a tweet – that’s the minimal level. There are a lot of good poets who come up with lines of poetry and put them on Twitter. But there is a more exciting level, which is to create poetry which is at home on Twitter. This isn’t a 19th-century poem put on Twitter, but a poem that tries to use creative language that you find on Twitter and then push it forward into an artistic medium.

What new relationships between form and content does this create? You only have 140 characters to write your tweet, but you can also use links to other media.

There are so many exciting new raw materials that the internet has made available for a poet. People say that Shakespeare would think in the form of a sonnet, and that this is the form that his head was moulded into. I think the same can happen with the tweet – once you tweet a lot it becomes a natural form, and you see opportunities and content through that form.

Oxford University Poetry Society readings

Oxford University Poetry Society readings

Where a written poem is black and white words fixed onto a page, on Twitter the visual and temporal experience of reading the poem is very different. How does that impact upon the form and content of a poem?

One of the things that it will do – or rather, will continue to do, as this is always happening – is blur the boundaries between media. There’s a really interesting movement in America, called Alt Lit. They’re particularly good at taking things like memes, a particular combination of image and text, and creating poetry and art from it. I think the tension (and reticence from the academic community about moving poetry online more) comes from the difficulty of creating something that is not a gimmick whilst also being timely. You want to create something that captures the moment without relying on the moment.

It’s almost impossible to say how these changes will alter how we will think about poetry in the future. You don’t want to emphasise the change too much as a lot stays constant, but you also don’t want to ignore what is new. For example, with my poetweets, I will try and rearrange them into sequences after I’ve tweeted them, and print them out so they become like narratives. It’s still unclear to me whether they belong more on Twitter and the page is just a way of dissemination, or if Twitter is just a workshop before I eventually arrange them for the page? But the impact of new forms is almost impossible to intuit, and I think there’s a point where action has to come first, just doing and then working out what you’ve done afterwards.

How has your idea of what poetry is changed over the last few years, from both writing your own and reading others’ poems?

My intuitive sense of what a poem should be is that it is constantly breaking down boundaries, so I think ‘what poetry is’ is constantly expanding. Using new technology creates new artistic forms to create new means of expression to express the feelings we’re feeling. To try and capture our current way of life in a way that it’s not been captured before. Writing in the form of Facebook chat or gchats could be a new means of dramatic form. That’s another way of trying to capture experience of the current moment, because the forms we use limit what we can say; using old forms pushes us to the sorts of thoughts our minds have been taught how to think. Developing new thoughts is a way of opening up the mind to unexpected, new ways of thinking…

This is where the idea of free spelling comes in. This works on two levels, the first being that the way that we spell online shows us that we can spell pretty freely and still be understood. We can spell almost how we want and it will be entirely decipherable, so you can adopt typos and colloquialisms in poetry. On the second level, rather than mimicking the language evolution that happens naturally online, you can adopt artistic version of spellings. You can decide to respell things based on the reaction you think it will evoke. For example, I think the word ‘happy’ always looks much happier when it is spelled ‘happie’, it’s slightly more infectious, and the word ‘brughtal’ is more aggressive than ‘brutal’.

How do you personally go about beginning a poem?

My mind knows that if it gives me a phrase, I will write it down on my phone, so it’s started to be quite generous in giving me words. I’ll either write the poetweet in the moment of inspiration – so the tweets are often quite spontaneous – or else I’ll flick through my notebook app on my phone for a phrase and see where it takes me.

Looking at your phone app, it’s in an incredibly different visual format to a notebook. Do you think that changes how you go about writing a poem?

Virginia Woolf's notebook for 'Mrs Dalloway'

Virginia Woolf’s notebook for ‘Mrs Dalloway’

Definitely. You read Virginia Woolf’s notebooks and she has sprawling handwriting and incredibly long sentences that stretch out across the page. Her mind is made to fit the space of a notebook. For me, a big change happened when I got an iPod touch and started using apps. Your mind starts to fill in a different kind of space. So it certainly changes how I think of syntax and construction.

Who are your favourite poets working at the moment?

There’s the aforementioned Alt Lit community in America which I find really interesting insofar as they’re trying to up the value of the internet. People like Steve Roggenbuck, who does sometimes cheesy but sincerely emotional blog videos which is an intriguing use of a new medium, a new form. In London there’s a bunch of poets like Sam Riviere using other internet mediums and internet-inspired forms like blogs. I think the most interesting things come from people mixing internet sensibilities with the tradition of lyric poetry.

L. C. Broad

Leo’s poetweets can be found @the_poetweet, and recordings of his poems on his Soundcloud. He has also written an essay on free spelling, accessible here. More information about Oxford University Poetry Society can be found on their website.

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Virginia Woolf’s Orlando remains one of the most daring and unusual novels of the early twentieth century. Based loosely on the life of Woolf’s companion Vita Sackville-West, the semi-biographical narrative spans over three hundred years as it follows the life of Orlando, a sixteenth century nobleman at the court of Elizabeth I, who abruptly changes gender at the age of 30 and continues to live through to the twentieth century as a woman. It challenges perceptions of gender, how we write history, and fundamentally reconfigures the stylistic possibilities of biographical writing. Subsequently, much of the impact of Orlando lies in its manner of construction, meaning that a stage adaptation faces significant challenges from the outset. Is it possible to capture the chimerical world conjured up by Woolf in a far more concrete setting; how does one negotiate the distinct lack of dialogue in the book?

Nonetheless, this week sees Byzantium Productions staging Sarah Ruhl’s 2011 adaptation, with Orlando played by Dominic Applewhite and Grainne O’Mahony on alternating nights. The most striking aspect of the adaptation is its humour: Ruhl altered little of the original script, leaving Woolf’s biting wit to shine through. Her cutting observations regarding the status of women are transformed into fantastic one-liners, with Femi Nylander and Grainne O’Mahony standing out with brilliant comic turns as the Archduchess/duke and Queen Elizabeth respectively.

Dominic Applewhite & Florence Brady as Orlando and Sasha

Dominic Applewhite & Florence Brady as Orlando and Sasha

Unfortunately, when placed on stage, a text as multi-faceted as Orlando demands immediate transformations of mood from the cast which were not always achieved. The more serious undertones of the text did not have time or space to emerge from under the physical humour, and as the tone shifts to focus upon the horror of ‘the present moment’, the power of memory, and Orlando’s perception of time, the direct transcription of the text sometimes came across as stilted philosophising. This effect was heightened as with a running time of only 1.5 hours, the play omits much which contextualises these observations (the character Nicholas Greene is also noticeably missing and the ending slightly altered, neither of which are obvious improvements).

For the most part, Byzantium Productions staged the play imaginatively. The costuming and lack of significant props were especially effective, and the acting quality from the cast was flawless throughout. Allowing the majority of the scenery to be created by projections and lighting effects captured something of the magical quality of Woolf’s journey through history, with the suggested landscape largely left to the audience’s imagination. The projector could have been used more constructively, however, when the twentieth century arrives. This is the point where the theme of the inadequacy of language reaches its climax as signs become gibberish, and Woolf declares that ‘the body and mind were like scraps of torn paper tumbling from a each and, indeed, the process of motoring fast out of London so much resembles the chopping up small of identity which precedes unconsciousness and perhaps death itself that it is an open question in what sense Orlando could be said to have existed at the present moment.’ Alongside the vivid descriptions of the bustling tumult of the twentieth century city, this final chapter provides the perfect opportunity for some truly innovative staging which was not capitalised upon.

Grainne O'Mahony as Queen Elizabeth I

Grainne O’Mahony as Queen Elizabeth I

I was greatly entertained by the vast majority of tonight’s performance. As a comic take on normative gender roles, Byzantium Productions’ Orlando cannot be faulted. Fast-paced and amusing enough to earn spontaneous bursts of audience applause, the cast gave a thoroughly exceptional performance. As a theatrical incarnation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, however, this is an adaptation which falls a little short of the brilliance of the original. The fluidity of identity is not transferred completely effectively to the stage, where you are faced with a very physical and tangible incarnation of the protagonist. It is unclear, however, whether a different production would be able to avoid this pitfall, given the significantly different demands of the novel/reader and the stage/audience. What Byzantium Productions’ staging does it does well, and should be commended for tackling such a daunting project.

L. C. Broad

‘Orlando’ runs until Saturday 22nd November at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre; more information can be found on their Facebook page.

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Monkey Bars states its ambitions unambiguously: to faithfully reproduce for the audience the all-too-often-ignored voices of children. Playwright Chris Goode, in collaboration with counselor and self-proclaimed “specialist in dialogue” Karl James, interviewed school children across England, transcribed their words, and edited them into a play made out of 30 vignettes. Goode, whose inventiveness is limited by the restrictive conditions he has set himself, relies chiefly on two means: selection and alienation-effect. Firstly, he has to cull dramatically interesting dialogue from a mass of raw material, much of it no doubt unpromising, and his choice of scenes ultimately coheres around a few recurring themes — family, politics, religion, gender, careers, growing pains — which does endow the finished product with a small measure of unity. The scenes that end up on stage are, for the most part, humorous and engaging, though rarely challenging. Secondly, he attempts to coax the audience into reexamining routine scenes from daily life by transposing the children’s dialogue into adult situations – political debates, job interviews, cocktail parties – thus creating a form of alienation-effect.

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For this reason, the production rises and falls on the level of the acting, for much of the dramatic interest comes from the incongruity of having grown men and women play children. Here, under the guidance of director Siwan Clark, the overall performance concept always steers a middle road between childhood and adulthood: the actors neither commit fully to being adults and speaking their lines earnestly, nor (with the exception of the prologue with the boy who sings to his jelly) do they adopt clichéd physical mannerisms to indicate that they are children. Instead, they play their scenes as if they were children playing house, pretending to be adults – no mean feat for adult actors pretending to be children. When they do choose to reveal their childishness to the audience, the actors almost always opt for subtle means – a furtive glance, a casual slouch, a mock-confident posture, or a half-self-conscious smile – over gross ones. Their performances are fluid and rarely draw attention to themselves, with Callum Lynch and Connie Treves standing out especially through their ability to smoothly transition between a wide variety of different characters. The other actors, though excellent, do show seams in their performances as they sometimes allow their personal mannerisms to prevent themselves from disappearing into their roles. On the whole, they are effective in milking as much humour out of the play as it can yield, and credit has to be given to the director for blending their performances in such a way that they match each other in quality and intensity, lending some coherence to a fractured and episodic play.

The more purely visual aspects of the production are perhaps less successful. To be sure, the manipulation of colour in the show, juxtaposing the monochrome outfit of the children with a precise blend of warm and cool light (designed by Becki MacDuff), does complement the dialogue and liven the play without being intrusive. In particular, set designer Zoe Dickey’s choice of conveying scene changes through having actors use coloured chalk to draw a variety of items – podiums, wedding cakes, lounge chairs – on stage blocks serves two purposes: it allows pacing to be brisk and augments the whimsical nature of the text. However, the abstract dance interludes are less successful. The opening number involve actors making their entrance to the sound of low-key electronic ambience music, walking only in straight lines past each other, staring straight ahead, giving the choreography an impression of clockwork. While this does set a kind of vague mood for the play, it is hard to say what exactly is being conveyed: are these children brutalized by the mechanical conformity of modern life? or are these rigid adults presented solely to contrast with the freer, more genuine children? In any case, the choreography seems as if it were content to merely gesture towards being a piece of abstract dance rather than actually trying to be a piece of abstract dance. The closing number is even more egregious, for it is the only section not underscored with the aforementioned electronic music (superbly designed by Eric Foster) but with a maudlin lyric. This is especially unfortunate because the production, despite the ample opportunity it has to sentimentalize childhood and turn the play into a feel-good affirmation of conventional virtues, has largely steered clear of that trap. The closing number is therefore especially jarring with the way it aestheticizes childhood using none-too-original means.

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This fundamental conventionality of the text, rarely stressed by this particular production but always present as an undertone, is all the more problematic because it also perpetuates conventional prejudices, and does so quite unconsciously. For example, the only two scenes that explicitly deal with religion as a topic chooses Muslim children – and those raised in very conservative households at that. The vast majority of moderate Muslims do not, as one character does, find music haram, and would think the notion that you can’t say the word “cross” laughable, since orthodox Muslim theology reveres Jesus as a Prophet. And I trust that no explanation is needed as to why another character who relates that the Quran says “God loves war” is a gross caricature.

This brings me to a difficult question: how to talk about the ideological content of a verbatim play? If verbatim theatre is to be critiqued as serious theatre, it must be assumed to be just as undergirded by ideology as any other narrative. Using found dialogue inherently masks the ideology of a text, for it presents itself “as it really happened” – even though the author’s point-of-view shapes the material from its genesis, whether through James’ choice of interview subjects, or Goode’s editorial discretion in selecting 42 children out of the 70 interviewed and picking particular strands of dialogue out of context. Asserting that these words really were said, somewhere, by real children, does not in any way absolve the playwright of responsibility. The text starts from the pious premise that the voices of children are too often ignored, and then flatters the audience into feeling better for listening to the voices of children on stage, rather than, say, in real life. Indeed, there is very little dialogue in the play that one can’t hear simply by talking to real children; and while that is the point, what makes the play safe and unchallenging to the audience is precisely that it serves the dialogue of children in concentrated doses, filtering out the boring static that is an unavoidable part of meaningful interaction with real children, as any parent or babysitter can tell you. The audience can feel good for listening to stage children, have all the fun, skip the chores. This may all seem perfectly harmless, but the fact remains that the numbing conventionality of the play can easily become a way to hide sinister prejudices – prejudices never registered as such by an audience lulled into complacency, precisely because of how conventional the prejudice is. While this production managed its best with the material, the deeply safe nature of Monkey Bars isn’t just a problem with its surface – it undermines the whole.

E. Kamalabadi

‘Monkey Bars’ runs at the Burton Taylor Theatre until Saturday 22nd November. For more information and to book tickets, please visit the theatre website.

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