Sound and rhythm are the bedrock of Alice Oswald’s poetry: it longs to be read aloud. This is especially true of Dart, a long poem incorporating all the different voices of those who live, work and die on Devon’s river Dart. This makes its dramatic adaption by Grace Linden and Alice Troy-Donovan particularly welcome, the play running this week at Oxford’s Burton Taylor Studio. The pre-show event ‘Dart Voices,’ in collaboration with the Oxford Poetry Society and with illuminating talks from director-adaptors Grace Linden and Alice Troy-Donovan, was effective way of building interest to see what theatre can bring to the performance of Dart that a reading of the poem cannot.
Carefully-chosen selections were performed rather than the poem in its entirety, and these were ideal for bringing out a particular, important theme within the broader backdrop of the whole work. The dialogue between the contrasting, even opposing, voices of science against art made for a conflict which was built up to be repeatedly dissolved. A delightful resolution was reached when the words of Theodore Schwenk, a real-life theoretician of the water’s sounds, were used to describe his science in arrestingly poetic terms, blending these seemingly opposed types of language.
This subtle climax was built up to in the dramatised meetings of various voices. At one point, a boat-builder lovingly describing his creation – the materials, the stages of work – is hurried along by his impatient wife (or perhaps she is the embodiment of the boat, his real companion) who has clearly heard all his jargon before. When she takes over, the boat-builder responds to her wildly different, abstractly poetic take on the project with fond incomprehension. The same actors, though in quasi-fairytale territory, deliver a woodcutter’s down-to-earth description of his work interrupted by the sinisterly flirtatious questions of an unseen water nymph. Here, and at many other points, there is delicately insinuated sexuality beneath the surface of exchanges. This could have reached a brilliant high-point in passionate physicality when a capsized canoeist captures the river’s deadly, seductive attention, but the beauty and spontaneity of dance which they aimed for in grappling with one another was not quite achieved.
Ideas of masculine and feminine identity play a part in the staging of this battle. A consequence of the casting was that almost exclusively female actors played the seductive, capricious spirits and embodiments of the water, and men their more level-headed victims. However, this is counterbalanced when the female head of the water-abstracting plant speaks of the challenges, importance and responsibility of her work. She calls out what ‘Jan Coo,’ a ghost of the Dart, really knows about water, tackling the irrational head-on, highlighting how the more masculine voices are as open to imagination and emotion as the feminine ones are to rationality.
There were tremendous successes on the actor’s parts to get into the spirit of each voice, but it was unfortunate that ultimately a feeling of diversity predominated. “Who’s talking in my larynx?” is a question posed by the river near the start: it set a challenge for creating the effect of many people talking through the river’s one voice that was not met. Soliloquies and dialogue between two actors were often outstanding, but wider group work perhaps needed greater cohesion. This was not helped by how scenes were divided by a momentary black-out rather than gliding into one another.
Other minor technical and balance issues stilted its flow and undermined the value of the otherwise great idea of layering recorded voices and a watery soundscape with the words onstage. A major strength of this production was how it did not shy away from the eerie and unsettling aspects which are very much present within the poem, and the use of recorded and distorted voices were appropriately ghostly. However, balance was an issue in the use of this technique and the actors were sometimes drowned out beneath the recording, which is a shame when the poem’s words were so central to creating complexity and atmosphere. Staging was minimal: sheets of compressed flotsam suspended in transparent plastic strung across the stage looked faintly baffling and ungainly at the start, but they came into their own whenever hit by soft lighting, recreating the impression of cloudy water.
These faults were never so apparent as to obscure the beauty and significance of the language and its spirited, insightful performances. As much was gained in the emphasis on having two characters intimately reacting to one another’s language as was lost through the neglect of plurality. The dramatic Dart was not a reflection of the poem as a whole, but nor was it trying to be. Instead, it was an aid to the imagination for certain aspects of it, highlighting strands of meaning that can easily go unnoticed.
‘Dart’ runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until Saturday 21 November; for more information and to book tickets, please visit their website.