Review: The Marriage of Kim K

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am in no way unbiased towards this production. I am friends with most of the cast and crew, although I should note I was a fan of their work before I knew most of them personally. I also had a minor role in it, helping out with marketing in the run up to its first performance, and I sat in on roughly two weeks’ worth of rehearsals. As such, while I will strive be objective in my criticism, there’s no way I can actually write about this show objectively. Consider this review a biased opinion from someone involved, and I advise you check out some other reviews from less biased sources.

The Marriage of Kim K might be best described as Channel Surfing: The Musical. Mashing up the stories of Kim Kardashian, The Marriage of Figaro, and a couple arguing about which of the two to watch on television, fledgeling company leoe&hyde have produced a witty and engaging piece of theatre. Its clever structure, vigorous performances, and ambitious music make this a play well worth catching, even if the elaborate technical challenges sometimes threaten to overwhelm the team.

The play tells three overlapping stories which interact and comment on each other as the show progresses. We open with Amelia and Stephen, a lovely if slightly passive aggressive couple chilling out in front of the television. We are then introduced to Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, in a condensed version of their infamously failed 2011 marriage. Finally, we have the Count and Countess from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. Amelia wants to watch Kim. Stephen wants to watch Mozart. Arguments, inevitably, ensue.

As Stephen and Amelia bicker, we switch back and forth between them and the shows they are watching. The effect, while jarring at first, is the baseline from which the show pulls several clever tricks, and the music makes the most of this juxtaposition. The live band switches between electronica and classical music at the drop of a powdered wig, and there’s some fun to be had spotting the show’s many quotes from contemporary pop songs.

But these quotations are still in service of the larger show. They create dramatic irony, such as when Amelia sings about her unhappy marriage to a sample of ‘Happy’, or hint at the world beyond the stage, like when ‘N****s in Paris’ is used to signal the approach of Kanye West. This is a show about the detritus of culture, both high and pop, but while the juxtapositions are all terribly clever, the script can feel a little bit timid.

It takes the best part of twenty minutes for all three narrative tracks to get up and running, which feels like quite a slow run up to the play’s real premise. Similarly, the decision to give every cast member a solo does not do wonders for the show’s pacing. The Count and Countess’s in particular feel underwhelming, and audio problems are a frequent occurence. The performance I saw had some real trouble with microphones, including a particularly nasty bit of feedback during Kim’s solo. There was also a real problem with audio levels, as the band frequently threatened to drown out the singing.

This is not a knock on the performers, however, who are good across the board. Stephen Hyde and Amelia Gabriel are impeccable as themselves, full of warmth and humanity, while effectively conveying their respective flaws of egotism and control freakery. [I should stress here that I am referring to the characters’ egotism and control freakery]. Yasemin Mireille is a classic diva as Kim K, while James Edge is pure id as Kris Humphries, his wild gyrating and asides to the audience almost taking him into panto territory. Nathan Bellis and Emily Burnett are similarly impressive as the Count and Countess, their skilled opera tones a marked contrast with the high-pitched pop antics of Kim’n’Kris.

The Marriage of Kim K is a sprawling, ridiculous contraption of a show, but at a mere 72 minutes it also manages to be energetic and concise. While it occasionally threatens to collapse under its own ambition, on its own merits it’s a funny, heartwarming, and downright clever piece of work, whose finer touches you will still be realising several days later.

Oh, and it has possibly the greatest title drop in the history of theatre.

 

The Marriage of Kim K is in London until 29 July, and the Edinburgh Festival in August. Tickets are available to buy here.

 

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Trolling the Grim Reaper: a Tale of Two Everymen

A few months ago, I opened Medieval Drama: An Anthology. It was uncomfortably close to my final exams, and I had decided to familiarise myself with Everyman. Everyman is a play from the 1510s, about a hapless dope at the mercy of forces beyond his control, who, after gradually abandoning his normal life, calmly faces the solemn ritual of his own demise. My study, as ever, was semi-autobiographical. Or so I flattered myself.

After that, some stuff happened.

Yesterday, I opened Everyman: a new adaptation by Carol Ann Duffy. The passage of the aforementioned stuff meant I was now free to read as I saw fit, and in between the cover letters and the CV-polishing, I decided to see if Duffy’s version lived up to the original.

Everyman, for those unfamiliar, is a play about death. But it’s also about some other things, including Catholic doctrine, family dynamics, environmental destruction, and the music of Meghan Trainor. In both versions, it is not interested in beginnings. Only in endings.

But let’s make one thing absolutely clear: Everyman in no way ‘needed’ this adaptation. Dr Liv Robinson has talked about the paratext for Duffy’s 2015 National Theatre production, and its irritating tendency to treat Duffy as somehow ‘rescuing’ the play from its original context. Duffy’s script is indeed impressive, and by mounting such a high profile production she undoubtedly gave the play some much-needed attention. But the original Everyman is an astounding work of art on its own terms. That its own terms are not those of twenty-first century theatre (or of overpriced paperbacks from Faber & Faber) is not the fault of the text itself.

The original Everyman is melancholic atmosphere; Duffy’s is melancholic freak weather. The original is didactic, but its content is curiously benign. Greg Walker points out that, unlike most medieval moralities, Everyman has no vice figures, “nor is there, strictly speaking, any real dramatic tension”. This is not a world of epic conflict, but quiet acceptance and well-meaning abandonment. The play’s most moving moment comes when Everyman simply states:

How sholde I be mery or gladde?

For fayre promyses men to me make,

But whan I have moost nede they me forsake.

I am decyved; that maketh me sadde.

But for all that sadness, the play is full of odd humour (or odd to this modern reader, at least). Such as when Everyman asks:

EVERYMAN: My Cosyn, wyll you not with me go?

COSYN: No, by Our Lady! I have the crampe in my to!

Everyman is a play about accepting death, specifically within a Christian worldview. Everyman must scourge himself (“In the name of the Holy Trynyte,/ My body sore punyshed shall be”), and then seek absolution from a priest who remains offstage. The action is static, austere, funereal, concluding with Everyman simply laying down and dying, still delivering the play’s Message:

Take example, all ye that this do here or se,

How they that I loved best do forsake me

Excepte my Good Dedes, that bydeth truly.

It’s an attitude, if not alien to modern sensibilities, at least considerably removed from them. That a recent production of its acceptance of punishment, followed by death, resonated so strongly with the students of Oxford University, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Duffy’s version understandably ditches the sermonising, though she retains a surprising amount of the original plot, and updates the pithy humour of the original. My favourite moment comes when Everyman (or ‘Ev’ to his friends) tries to explain his problems to his sister:

EVERYMAN: I met death.

SISTER: Name-dropper. Last year it was George Clooney.

Duffy’s other updates are largely positive. We first meet Everyman drunk at a party, vomiting into a bucket held by a female cleaner, who turns out to be God herself. This adds a pleasing class-consciousness, particularly given Everyman’s portrayal as nouveau riche playboy.

Several of Duffy’s additions are hard to judge on the page; the rapping prologue reads cringily, but could well have been effective on stage. The use of pop music (including ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and ‘All About That Bass’) is similarly difficult to judge without seeing the performance, though the “storm scene” towards the end, cued by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s ‘Stormy Weather’ is pleasingly reminiscent of Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest.

The film’s final image feels curiously apt: a young man, exhausted, slumped in a chair. His friends departing. His magic expended. But still the old potential for escape. The right words in the wrong order. That guy is dead now.

Duffy’s main divergence, of course, is the ending. Absent the explicitly Christian worldview, her Everyman achieves peace through more personal, less grandiose means.

He says thank you.

Thank you, thank you,

for the sweet, sour, ugly, beautiful, the cool, the crap,

for discord and harmony, rough, smooth,

for the fragrant or foul, the fucking lot of it.

My whole life all I’ve ever wanted

was to be alive; awaken

to the light and air of here.

This is his redemption. Not confession, but confessional. But these are not quite his last words. His final utterance comes in conversation.

DEATH: My work is done,

but let me tell you, son,

I’ve loved the hunt.

EVERYMAN: Can I tell you something?

You’re a cunt.

He then slips gently into that good night. The play’s final image is Death, alone on stage, finally realising the insult:

Help me out here –

did my feckin ears deceive me

or did your man call me a cunt?

This is a total affront.

Where’s the respect?

I’m to pick up my scythe

and exit stage left?

This is Duffy’s answer to Everyman’s dilemma. We cannot outrun death. But we may be able, in a purely rhetorical sense, to get the better of it. To shame, bamboozle, and troll it. The last enemy that shall be DESTROYED is Death.

I’m coming towards the end now. A personal essay is like an English degree; the good ones always know just when to stop.

Listen: I’ve got something to say.

Never mind.

Review: Skylight

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 14 June 2017.

It was my last ever Oxford play review, and I’m glad I went out with a good one.

Student theatre can often be juvenile. In its weird, earnest, experimental brilliance, it sometimes feels lacking in emotional maturity, but Skylight is the antithesis of that. Its ad copy promises “a dangerous battle of opposing ideologies”, but this is a lie. Skylight is not a Bitingly Satirical Play about Politics. It is a play about three people, stupid, brilliant, a little bit broken, and all the pain and messiness that brings. The play’s naturalism feels hugely refreshing, even vital, as we close another academic year: this is the most human play Oxford has seen for months.

The play unfolds in a shabby little flat belonging to Kyra, a young woman working in the rougher parts of London. We open with her returning, exhausted, after a hard day’s work. As the evening progresses she is visited first by a young man named Edward, who has fallen out with his father, and later by that father himself, Tom, with whom Kyra has a history. The play is largely a two-hander; we never see all three characters together, and the lion’s share of the time is spent with Kyra and Tom. The two of them have had an affair in the past, but Kyra eventually left Tom to care for his dying wife, Alice. This, coupled with class tensions – Kyra is a penniless schoolteacher while Tom is a millionaire – generate the play’s action, which consists of Tom and Kyra talking, reminiscing, and arguing. This is helped by subtle, but ingenious touches to the production. The first hour’s conversation occurs while Kyra prepares dinner, and the decision to cook an actual spaghetti bolognaise during the performance is a masterful bit of verisimilitude.

The actors, naturally, are superb. Natalie Lauren is wearily sarcastic as Kyra, reacting sardonically to the two angst-ridden men, but holding her own in the more emotionally charged scenes. Her portrayal of anger is stunningly lifelike, and her gentleness with the shy and naive Edward lends credence to her character’s job as a teacher. Adam Diaper is brash and confident as Tom, but his swagger belies a real vulnerability. His constant banter and self-absorbed jokes make him intensely likeable, even as we recognise his character is a bit of an arse.

As a couple, the pair are impeccable; we understand intuitively why each of them has made the decisions they’ve made and why the other is hurt by it, and are able to sympathise with both. Luke Wintour is given a much less showy part as Edward, but he sells the character’s restless awkwardness. After two hours of sadness and conflict, the play ends on a note of unabashed sweetness, and it’s created by Wintour’s understated performance.

Skylight is a really special production. The gripes are there to be made – at two and half hours this may be a little long for some tastes, and the period details are messy – but I find myself somehow unwilling to make them. Skylight is proper, satisfying drama, and one of the finest productions I have seen in three years of student reviewing.

Tag Yourself and the Aesthetics of Empathy

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 2 June 2017. It was my last ever piece for the paper, and I hope I managed to end on a high note.

It has been said that memes are inherently communist. Anarchic, decentralised, and divorced from the profit motive, the argument goes that they are therefore inherently suited to left-wing viewpoints. But this argument, while tempting, is not entirely satisfactory. Aside from the fact that plenty of memes have been commercially appropriated, the prominence of memes as an alt-right aesthetic cannot be simply ignored. It’s hard to call anything ‘communist’ when white supremacists are tossing it around alongside the word ‘magic’, but the equal prominence of avowedly socialist memes suggests a certain ideological flexibility. How, then, are we to understand the apparent political confusion of memes?

The tag yourself meme, first seen on Tumblr in 2016, may provide a clue to this political ambiguity. The format is simple enough: a collection of thumbnail images on a white background, each accompanied with a name (misspelled for comic effect), and three or four brief descriptive phrases denoted by dashes. This last point is crucial; the typography of tag yourself memes, in opting for a dash over the more traditional bullet point, centres on soft power, further reinforced by a preference for n-dashes over lengthier, and thus more impactful, m-dashes.

When one of these images is shared, with the accompanying phrase, ‘tag yourself, I’m ____’, the sharer creates an informal solidarity, a non-judgemental space in which the reader is able to choose an identity. Moreover, the format is flexible enough to allow identification with a wide variety of tropes, images, and figures. To tag oneself is to escape the self, to become more than human, or at least not only human. Personal favourites include the classic Dat Boi (I’m ‘it’s him’), and the equally classic Romanticism tag yourself (I’m William Blake). But whatever the specific theme, this à la carte empathy forms the aesthetic core of the tag yourself meme.

This memetic ideology is broadly encouraging. If we understand politics as driven by identity, tag yourself’s flexibility and accommodation of diverse types implies an acceptance, even a championing of, diversity. To gain likes and shares, the tag yourself meme must include different types of content, relatable to different types of people. This aesthetic of empathy, in which memers both conceptualise, and express themselves, as multiple bodies else, has obvious potential for progressivism.

The snag, however, is the word ‘memetic’. While the form ostensibly encourages diversity, the pithiness of the tag yourself meme can also serve to directly enact stereotypes. Language O’Clock’s world flags tag yourself, for example, describes Ireland as “very enthusiastic about potatoes”, while Great Britain is both “compulsive tea drinker” and “carries a pocketwatch”. This adds a reactionary sense of imperialist nostalgia, the opposite of social progress, yet an attitude actively encouraged by the tag yourself format.

The tag yourself meme, then, is a form which ostensibly encourages diversity, while practically enacting crass simplifications of individual identities. The other is vicariously experienced, but never in a state equal to the self. Tag Yourself: I’m Liberalism.

Review: Merlot and Royal

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 30 May 2017.

Merlot and Royal is a new musical being staged at Tingewick Hall this week. While it demonstrates genuine effort and no small degree of skill, it gives me no pleasure to say that the piece unfortunately falls completely flat. A period musical with no laughs, no tears, and no memorable tunes, it’s surprising that so many talented actors and musicians have managed such a mediocre display.

The plot feels both contrived and poorly-paced. Our hero is Robert Merlot, heir to the titular Merlot and Royal Banking Firm. After the death of his father he finds himself thrust into a world of high-powered meetings and luxurious parties, while also falling for a waitress ‘below his station’. You can probably guess the rest, but that summary does not do justice to the tangled mess that is the play’s structure. A mountain of undeveloped sub-plots, the play lurches awkwardly from scene to scene, lacking drive and panache. There are hardly any jokes, and the few there are struggle to raise a smile.

The production focuses entirely on the music, at the expense of character, plot, and charm. While the music is beautifully played by the impressive ensemble, opening night saw near-debilitating audio problems. The band were frequently too loud to hear the songs’ lyrics, and microphones seemed to stutter and cut out with every alternate word. Though competent, the music is ultimately forgettable, with not a single catchy melody. The blocking and choreography are also too static and unimaginative to make any of it memorable.

The actors are poorly served by a wooden script, but most of them manage acceptable performances. Sammy Breen has plenty of leading man charm, and Amelia Gabriel almost manages to wring some pathos out of her frequent passionate confrontations. The real standout is Alex Buchanan as a slimy bank clerk turned traitor turned bank robber (why?) who plays a scene of sudden contrition and suicide with such conviction as to almost distract from its sheer contrivance.

The rest of the cast are perfectly adequate, and the singing is good across the board, but the fact remains that there is no spark of life in this production. The setting is unusual, but feels bland and generic; the ambition is admirable, but the execution is timid and dull. The sad fact is that these actors, these musicians, and these concepts, all deserve a much better play.

Review: Reigen

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 24 May 2017.

Reigen is a play about sex. It is also about society, class, gender, power relations: all regular subjects of student theatre. Written by Arthur Schnitzler in 1897, the play presents a series of sexual encounters between nine characters of various social classes and dispositions, which vary, worryingly, in levels of consent. It is also in German, which poses something of a difficulty for your Anglophone reviewer. Nevertheless, language society plays have consistently been some of the most inventive in Oxford drama, and Reigen is no exception. Ambitious, clever, and unapologetic, this is undoubtedly a worthwhile production.

The plot is conveyed through ten distinct vignettes, each involving a sexual encounter building up to the carnal act itself, with the exception of a more contemplative finale. The ten characters’ names, including The Soldier, The Parlour Maid, The Poet, and The Prostitute, suggest that they are broad archetypes rather than individual characters, staying true to the play’s satirical intent.

Being a play about sexual politics, Reigen’s age arguably hurts the production. Its no doubt groundbreaking treatment of sex feels tame in 2017, and it displays a distinctly nineteenth century attitude to issues of consent. The second and third chapters deal with sexual assault and bullying in a way audiences may find uncomfortable, and the fact that one of the assaulters is later treated sympathetically is somewhat disconcerting. That being said, the play is clear about the suffering caused, and we are not encouraged to view it positively. The play is also critical of patriarchy elsewhere, though in a more humorous context: there is a hilarious scene where The Husband lectures his wife on the evils of infidelity while she nods along, bored. The fact that we have seen the wife having an affair in the previous chapter only heightens the comedic effect.

The performers, too, are broadly comedic, but they bring some real nuance to their stock roles. Ruth Eichinger is brilliant as both The Soldier and The Young Wife, moving seamlessly from brutality to reluctance to deadpan sarcasm. Stephen Jones is another highlight as The Poet, by turns creepy and hilarious, and his character lends the play a self-awareness in his capacity as a self-indulgent writer.

The production’s main flaw, from a technical standpoint, is one that primarily impacts clueless Anglophones. The subtitles on opening night were appalling, constantly skipping both forwards and backwards, and connecting very little to the action on stage. While not a problem for the play’s main audience of German speakers, it is a shame for others to miss out on the full experience due to a technical problem.

Overall, however, Reigen is worth checking out. Funny, disturbing, and occasionally moving, it’s a type of theatre we just don’t see often enough. Go and see it, and chew over your own bemused reactions for a few days. Isn’t that what student plays are all about?

The Age of Dril

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 24 February 2017.

“fuck “jokes”. everything i tweet is real. raw insight without the horse shit. no, i will NOT follow trolls. twitter dot com. i live for this”

Such is the manifesto of the Twitter user known only as Dril (wint to his friends). An anonymous surrealist comedian, his first tweet was in 2008: the single word ‘no’. Since then he has provided an endless stream of memeable verbiage. Highlights include “the wise man bowed his head solemnly and spoke: “theres actually zero difference between good & bad things. you imbecile. you fucking moron”, and “who the fuck is scraeming “LOG OFF” at my house. show yourself, coward. i will never log off”.

They’re funny, weird, nonsensical, even a little unnerving – but they all represent some aspect of internet behaviour. We’ve all seen naive appeals to moderation, we’ve all seen desperate flame war posturing. Dril is the internet’s collective id, given form. He’s the online equivalent of the Beowulf-poet; we may never know who he really is, but we recognise when he is being channeled.

This helps explain the proliferation of accounts riffing on Dril – his tweets are not owned, but freely distributed, remixed, re-memed. The most interesting of these riff accounts is @EveryoneIsDril, a bot which retweets other users who happen to sound like Dril. One of its most memorable retweets is some bloke called @realDonaldTrump: “When someone attacks me, I always attack back…except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!”

Ah, yes. Politics. The increasingly nonsensical nature of political discourse has been fertile ground for Dril and his riffers. Another great riff account is @parliawint, which uses Dril tweets to caption photos of British politicians. Recent highlights include a picture of Theresa May at her Brexit speech, captioned “Downlioading 6 Terabytes of Info On Deal’s” and that infamous picture of Michael Gove doing the thumbs up with Trump, captioned “Louis? gosh, it’s been years. it’s me, Neal, from Law School. anyway, i got this big juicy onion here, was thinking me and you could fuck it”. There is a visceral glee to this kind of satire, reflecting the topsy-turvy aesthetic of modern politics in a way no traditional cartoon could.

Artefacts like these are perfect satirical expressions for this new age of reactionism. Gluts of nonsense are a political tool; it’s been remarked that the Trump administration seems to be trying to exhaust and befuddle the opposition through the sheer volume of bad policies and public scandals, and our political vocabulary is vulgarising at hyperspeed. It’s hard to think of a more Dril-like phrase than ‘The Bowling Green Massacre’, or indeed ‘Brexit Means Brexit’.

This, then, is the Age of Dril. A culture weaponised against us, an international discourse gone mad, the entire world a perverted Hieronymus Bosch painting, watched over by Pepe and Pixellated Fascists. In a world poisoned by nonsense, our only recourse is to be nonsensical ourselves. Evolve and become unrecognisable. Become multi-tentacled, pan-dimensional, and incorporeal strobe lights of blood and supernova. And even as the world gradually shrinks, slowly transforming into the shriveled corncob of neoreaction, scream into the howling void: “I’m not owned!”

Embrace your paradox. Refuse to be someone else’s.

Live for that.