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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.

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

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

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

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

Oxford City Boathouse

Oxford City Boathouse

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

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

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

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

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

LMH Willow 1

Lady Margaret Hall

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

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

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

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

Port Meadow

Port Meadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kidneys

The Kidneys

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

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

How can student filmmakers find funding in Oxford?

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

J. Wadsworth

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

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

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

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

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

John Constable - Malvern Hall, Warwickshire (1809)

John Constable – Malvern Hall, Warwickshire (1809)

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Hopper - Corn Hill (1930)

Edward Hopper – Corn Hill (1930)

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Caulfield - After Lunch (1975)

Patrick Caulfield – After Lunch (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Fassbender in Shame (C) Film4 / Momentum Pictures

Michael Fassbender in Shame (C) Film4 / Momentum Pictures

 

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

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

J. Wadsworth

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

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

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

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

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

L. C. Broad

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

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

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

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

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

****

K. Steiner

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

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