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.

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.

The Homecoming: A Freudian Reading Is a Bit Too Obvious

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 16 February 2017.

This is not a show to beat the fifth week blues. And frankly, thank god for that. Dark, cruel, and deeply sinister, this new production of the Harold Pinter classic is a delightfully absurdist tonic to our horribly absurd time. With its story of a family reunion gone terribly wrong, the play is unafraid to deal with class and gender politics, and as such it feels relevant today in ways it couldn’t have in its original performance in 1964. Do not go in expecting light entertainment, but do expect scenes of perverse fascination, and some of the best acting in Oxford right now.

The action takes place in a shabby old house on the cheaper side of London, inhabited by an old man and what passes for family; two sons, Lenny and Joey, and a despised younger brother, Sam. But when his third son Teddy returns unexpectedly from a six-year absence, with his mysterious new wife in tow, things take a turn for the bizarre. The new daughter-in-law, Ruth, exerts a strange influence on the men of this dilapidated house, and before long they’re actively fighting for her attention and favour. There’s a gradual slide from semi-affectionate banter to merciless infighting, and the whole thing plays out with the quiet illogic of a nightmare.

The set dressing is suitably run-down, with period details like a cheap gramophone and yellowing newspapers, and the shabby armchair (a kind of central throne for the action) looks liable to collapse at any moment, in a suitably obvious metaphor for this household’s patriarchal structure. Even the smell is appropriate; sweat and cigarette smoke permeates the house, and the confined space of the Michael Pilch works well to create the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere the play demands.

The acting is similarly in tune with the script. Adam Cameron Diaper plays Max, the family patriarch, and he does very well with a part clearly written for a much older actor. Rather than focusing on his character’s decrepitude, he plays up the spite and pettiness of the role, while also adding a dimension of pathos to his nostalgic ramblings. Adam Goodbody is obsequious yet oddly creepy as Max’s limousine-driving brother, and Alec McQuarrie plays dim-witted son Joey with well-honed comic timing. Rupert Stonehill is suitably pathetic as Teddy, projecting smug elitism and fragile insecurity with equal aplomb.

But the real standouts are Hugo McPherson as Lenny and Cat White as Ruth. McPherson plays a London gangster, his sharp suit instantly distinguishing him from the rest of the cast. He veers between pedantic arguing and soft-voiced threats, rising to a shout at moments of tension. It’s a forceful, menacing performance, matched by White as the play’s domineering interloper. Initially curious, and eventually actively manipulative, there’s something hypnotic about her presence on stage. The other characters fall silent as soon as she speaks, her voice and eye movements subtly asserting control over the situation. The chemistry between these two is electrifying, and their slow dance/ kiss in the second half is what really sends the play into overdrive.

This isn’t a production for everyone; it’s over two hours with an interval, and the sensation of being trapped in a bizarre situation with people you don’t understand is far from a pleasant one. But for its top-drawer acting, its sinister atmosphere, and its overriding commitment to its aesthetic, this is absolutely a play worth seeing. Just don’t invite the parents.

The Oxford Revue and Friends – A review

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 12 June 2016.

People who say Oxford is no laughing matter are very much not the target audience of The Oxford Revue and Friends, Saturday night’s showcase for the city’s hottest up-and-coming comics. Also featuring appearances from the Leeds Tealights and the Cambridge Footlights, as well as hot new stand-up Phil Wang, the evening felt like a promise of things to come – we were watching live what would likely end up on ‘best of’ compilation videos thirty years later. Fresh, witty, and raucously entertaining, this was a demonstration of the best UK student comedy had to offer, even if, at two hours, it perhaps needed a bit of a trim.

Phil Wang made an excellent host, cracking jokes about his own career (“it’s been six years, and I’ve just moved further up the bill”) and making easy banter with the audience. A rather mild introduction eventually gave way to some whip-smart jokes about racism (“it isn’t always black and white – there are shades of yellow too. I think I’ve just written a haiku”), and his affable stage presence helped to smooth the transitions between each act. The show’s first hour was split into two halves, with the Leeds Tealights and Cambridge Footlights respectively, before handing over to Oxford’s own after the interval.

The first half was overwhelmingly solid. The Leeds lot opened strong with a wonderfully grim bit about a girlfriend tied to the train tracks, followed by half an hour of similarly imaginative sketches. The highlight was a sketch involving a dude’s girlfriend catching him listening to Coldplay, (“It’s Arctic Monkeys!” “I would have preferred porn!). It perfectly captured the ludicrous yet pervasive power of music snobbery, and the performers delivered it with aplomb. The Varisty crowd were similarly good, with cleverly-written observational sketches about table football and improv comedy, although they were at their best when indulging their weird streak. Their best sketch was a slightly nightmarish dialogue about work experience in a chicken factory, delivered in an unnerving deadpan. Of the two acts, Leeds had the superior performers, while Cambridge had more refined and subtle sketch writers, which added up to an excellent showing overall.

The second half was a mixed bag. There was some seriously weak material towards the beginning, as some of the Revue’s newest recruits struggled with an overlong parody of student open mic nights, which had several good gags but lacked structural coherence. But once the old guard took the stage it was clear sailing right to the end, with clever scene after clever scene, including a genius riff on E4’s Skins and a Star Wars sketch worthy of Mitchell and Webb.

At two hours there were places where the show felt overlong – perhaps a ninety minute performance would have trimmed some of the fat – but this was a witty, subversive and thoroughly enjoyable evening. Well acted, creatively staged, and brimming with clever ideas, The Oxford Revue and Friends remains a highlight of the student comedy calendar.

Oxford’s Final Frontier: a chat with Oxford TrekSoc

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 3 June 2016.

They say Oxford is another world, but for many students that simply isn’t enough. Some want to seek out new friends, new experiences, to boldly split infinitives that no man (or indeed woman) has ever split before. Hence the existence of the Oxford Star Trek Society, a group of Trekkies who meet every Monday to watch the show, discuss its nearly fifty years of history, and generally appreciate what lies beyond the final frontier. Heading them up is the newly-elected Captain Rose Atkinson, who was kind enough to meet with me to discuss Star Trek, ropey special effects and the social life of the society.

We started by discussing her role within the society. “I’m the Captain of the Star Trek Society, so I’m responsible for organisation the weekly meetings, arranging the themes of the episodes we pick, keeping the society finances in order, and organising events. There are four of us on the society committee – we’ve got the First Officer, who assists me and helps out with food, that kind of thing. Then there’s the Morale Officer, who also does events, and the Technical Officer, who’s responsible for showing the episodes we watch during the meetings.”

So what does a typical meeting involve? “Usually beforehand we have a poll on the Facebook page, so everyone can pick some episodes that they want to see. Then we turn up, watch a couple of episodes of Star Trek, maybe share some fun Star Trek-related information, but all in a very light-hearted sort of way. Then we go to the pub, usually. It’s quite a nice, easygoing time.”

Star Trek fandom often involves a high level of commitment. How did Rose get involved in the society, and how did she first get into the show generally? “Well, being a lifelong (almost) Trekkie, I went looking for them at the freshers’ fair, because I had heard about them on the offer group, and signed up from there. In terms of how I first got into the show, I think my mum showed me it when I was about ten, or something. I’m a big fan of the original series, and I liked its outlook. It’s a very hopeful show, a very forward-looking show, and also one with a lot of fun in it. The whole Star Trek community is one that enjoys the flaws of the show as well as its selling points, I think. And it has some very good stories, as well.”

What’s the social dynamic of the society like, and what sort of crowd does it draw week to week? “Well, there’s about fourteen or fifteen regular members, so we’re quite a small and close-knit bunch. But to be honest, it’s quite a wide selection: we have grad students, undergrads, all sorts of sciences and humanities. It’s not a stereotypically “nerd” society, really. There’s a lot of different types of people within the group.”

What are the challenges of running a society like this in Oxford specifically? “I think that does have a dint on numbers, because I’m always meeting people who say they are interested in Star Trek, or they signed up at freshers’ fair and they’re still getting emails, but they just don’t have time. And I think maybe it’s perceived as more of a fun society, one that’s not going to look good on your CV, like for instance being a committee member of the Oxford Union or whatever. So it’s perceived as being a sort of frivolous society. I mean it is frivolous and fun, but I think it’s a good way to relax from the Oxford lifestyle. It’s a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously for the most part. I mean we all very much love it, but we can appreciate the silly side of Star Trek, the terrible low budget, the silly costumes and so on. I think it’s a show that lends itself to good-natured fun, really, and the small size of the society means that we all know each other. I mean, we had a contested election this year but it was never in the slightest bit aggressive, or a “hacking” election – there’s nothing to hack for, really, which is why it’s so much fun.”

Having been made Captain this term, does Rose have any grand plans for the society? “Well at the moment I hear this year’s batch of freshers has been bigger than previous years. In previous years the society has been down to about five people, I believe. So we would like to increase from the fourteen, fifteen members. We’re probably going to the fiftieth anniversary convention later this year, and organising a few more social events, because it is very much a society for friends with a similar interest, and getting along with each other. So we’d like a few more social activities to cater that. We’re hopefully going to have a crewdate with another nerdy society. We’d like to get in touch with maybe the Harry Potter society or something later in the year, and we’d like to try and go for a Star Trek picnic, and try and make some of the food that they have on the show. Off the top of my mind I think I’ve seen some recipes for Klingon worm dishes which I’d like to try. Though not using any actual worms, I hope.”

What are Rose’s favourite bits from the half-century of the Star Trek franchise? “I’m an original series Trekkie. My First Officer is more of a Next Generation fan – we tend to watch a lot of the Next Generation in the society, but I think we get quite a good balance of all the series’. It’s always the same people who suggest the episodes of a particular season. We’ve got some people who are very keen on one series and not on the others, so there’s a bit of a split there, but it’s entirely amicable.”

In that spirit, where does Rose stand on that great Trekkie debate, Kirk or Picard? “Well, personally, I don’t think my Captainhood is much like Captain Kirk’s [William Shatner], but he will always be my favourite captain, because he’s just a lot more fun than Picard [Patrick Stewart]. Picard is rather more realistic, but he’s not half as bombastic.”

Finally, how would Rose try persuade someone to come along to the society? “We’re not a society for “hardcore fans”. Some of us really love the original series, know all the different battleships, all the different cruiser classes, or whatever, and some of us have watched them once or twice, and think they’d like to get into it more. It’s a very welcoming society, there’s not a certain level of knowledge you need about Star Trek in order to get in. You can just turn up and give it a go, even if you’ve never seen it before. It is, after all, a cultural icon, turning fifty this year. It’s such a popular culture reference point that it’s worth coming just to understand the influence it’s had – if you look for it, you start seeing Star Trek everywhere.”

 

O shit waddup: a critical analysis of Dat Boi

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 3 June 2016.

The internet loves frogs. We have observed this fact in various memes, from the safe and reliable Kermit to the occasionally nightmarish Pepe. The most recent addition to these noble ranks is Dat Boi, who has been making the rounds on the Oxford Dank Memes Society and various other hubs of intellectual discussion. You’ve probably seen him by now (in fact he will probably be Old Memes by the time this article sees print). He’s a crudely rendered frog on a poorly compressed unicycle, generally captioned with some variation on “Here come dat boi/ o shit waddup”. On the surface he’s just another daft internet fad, but scratch that surface and you find… well, you find a daft internet fad, but one with interesting things to say about online culture and the re-appropriation of corporate art. Dat Boi is, in his own way, a tool of rebellion.

Dat Boi is, objectively speaking, total garbage. This is, in fact, the point. He is a prime example of a Dank Meme, an aesthetic defined by its self-referential lameness. To quote Ada Pospiszyl, head of the Oxford Dank Memes Society, with such a meme “repetition makes it funny. It’s like a second level of funniness… It just sort of comes from nowhere. The secret is just accepting that it’s basically quite lame, and laughing at yourself”. Dat Boi is an empty signifier, funny because he represents a wider calling card for internet communities. He is funny because meme-makers and meme-consumers, consciously or not, have designated him a symbol of humour. In that way he’s the perfect expression of post-modern comedy. Humour is defined by the unexpected, but Dat Boi is predictable, the comedy emerging from his over-signification. The core of the joke is ‘oh, not him again’, hence the weary existentialism of the phrase ‘o shit waddup’. Dat Boi is an anti-joke, funny because of his mutually agreed-upon unfunniness.

But beyond that, in his peculiarly lame way he represents a strike against the crass commercialism of so much art, especially in the internet age. The image of the frog on a unicycle was originally produced by Animation Factory, a company created during the infamous dotcom bubble of the late 1990s, as part of the Animation Factory Essential Collection 3. A classic example of faux-zany corporate humour, he was created for a collection of self-evidently ugly, self-evidently useless graphics, bearing all the cringeworthy hallmarks of late 90s graphic design. The useless creation of a useless company, the image embodies corporate culture in the information age; not art for art’s sake, but economic activity for the sake of economic activity, serving no purpose other than to give people fleeting, unfulfilling employment doing something, even if it is something stupid.

This garbage graphic only became Dat Boi once the internet got hold of him. The meme originated on Fresh Memes about the Mojave Desert and Other Delectable Cuisines, a meme-focused Facebook page. Since then he has spread like wildfire through the decentralised, chaotic networks of internet communities. Liberated from his corporate origins, Dat Boi can go from being a useless nothing of a product to a joyful symbol of humour and community. In that regard he is a positive sign of where internet culture is heading, and a welcome blow against the corporate establishment. Animation Factory supplied the image, but has long since lost control of it; the people have seized the memes of production.

 

The Oxford Revue and Friends – A preview

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 1 June 2016.

Most Playhouse productions are no laughing matter. Sitting comfortably at the top of the student theatre hierarchy, the Playhouse is a place for high production values and even higher brows. But in two weeks’ time the Oxford Revue, Oxford’s own band of student comics, will be taking to the stage in their annual show, The Oxford Revue and Friends. It sees them teaming up with long-time frenemies the Cambridge Footlights and the Leeds Tealights for two hours of sketches, songs and stand-up, providing a culmination of a year’s worth of shows, and the launching pad for a summer trip to the Edinburgh Fringe. I got to sit down with Revue co-president Jack Chisnall, who told me about the plans for the show.

“The show is a two-hour extravaganza, everyone is going to show off some of their stuff. There’s an air of competitiveness when you bring all these people together. But it’s really a celebration of student comedy, in all its amateurism, and the sense that people could take off from this. The format will be two halves. The first will be the Footlights and the Tealights doing some sketches, songs, whatever they feel like – we give them half an hour each to do whatever they want. And then they’ll hand over to us, the Oxford Revue, for the second half. It’s a chance to really show the kind of smorgasbord of what we did this year, dipping in and out of all the different shows we’ve done.”

“Working with the other troupes, I flatter myself that we all influence each other a little bit. We do a lot of shows together – we’ve met the Footlights three or four times already this year. This kind of show that we’re doing at the Playhouse gets recreated in Cambridge and Durham, and even in Bristol last year. So we see each other a lot – me and Georgia also went up against the Footlights at Varsity this year, so you see each other develop across the three years of your degree. So it’s competitive, in a fun way, but also collaborative. I don’t think we take ourselves too seriously. We all think that we’re going to make it, and that’s daft in its own way.”

“Performing in the Playhouse, well, without getting too precious about it, you’re very aware of the history it’s got. You look at that bruised and battered old stage, and you think, ‘oh, maybe Alan Bennett caused that rupture on the stage, maybe he dropped a heavy prop there’, or ‘maybe that was where Stewart Lee or Michael Palin performed’. It is, traditionally, where the Revue has always done a show. One is aware of the ghosts of the past there, so to speak. You’re aware of the really cool people who’ve performed there before you, and that’s what makes it so incredible.”

“There’s a general sense of being connected. You’re connected to the past, but you’re also connected to people who aren’t students. It’s full of townsfolk – they throw curveballs at you, as a performer. I know what students are going to laugh at, or I flatter myself I do, but you face different audiences when you do the Playhouse, people who don’t share that same set of references. It’s wonderful, because Oxford’s a great city, and you do forget, in a very arrogant way, that it’s actually a thriving town full of very interesting people. For one night a year you get to feel connected to this wonderful history of a city and a history of performance. The Playhouse is this rite of passage for us, and it’s very nice.”

Queueue – A preview

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 30 May 2016. I interviewed Leo Mercer about Queueue here.

The style of Queueue: A Coffee Shop Musical is best described as a kind of gentrified cyberpunk. A free-form, genre-mixing musical, Queueue unites some of the finest talent of the Oxford theatre scene for a show about life, love and cyber-stalking, all set inside one painfully hipsterish coffee house. Set to be performed this weekend at the Modern Art Oxford Cafe, director Scott Bolohan and writer Leo Mercer have tasked themselves with nothing less than ‘adapting the internet’. This is a show with ambition in spades, and while the preview performance showed several rough edges, Queueue looks set to get people talking, both online and off.

The coffee shop setting is more than superficial. The audience will be seated among the performers themselves, with the whole cafe as the play’s dramatic space. The performers sit at tables, stand behind counters, and wander around as the various episodes unfold, and the whole production has an air of intimacy which the writing capitalises on in interesting ways. The characters are all upper middle-class metropolitans, of a type familiar to anyone who has ever sat in The Missing Bean, with laptops and smartphones as omnipresent props. The songs are nicely relatable as well, and deal with such familiar themes as clickbait, procrastination, and the issue of privacy in an age when a person’s entire life can be stored electronically.

The singing is natural and unmodified, while Stephen Hyde’s backing tracks are all contemporary-feeling electronica. It’s a nice thematic contrast – the intimacy of the space set against the artificial nature of digital communication – but it’s one that could very easily go wrong, and the decision not to use microphones might end up backfiring. But with the singers themselves there’s very little to complain about. The Oxford Gargoyles’ Jemimah Taylor is charismatic and charming as Alice, the play’s nominal lead, and John Paul and Amelia Gabriel are just as compulsively watchable here as they were in The Marriage of Kim K. Also impressive is Charles Styles as banker-cum-hacker Cody (geddit?). He manages to be both sleazy and oddly thrilling, even if a few of his raps didn’t quite hit the mark in the preview performance.

The songs themselves are dynamic and punchy. The opening number ‘9 a.m. I Am’ builds an effective wall of sound which mirrors the everyday anxieties of coffee shop society, and ‘Number One’ makes an intelligent love song out of the clickbait listicle format. The lyrics present witty riffs on internet trends and bourgeois anxiety, and the performers’ gusto helps sell what would otherwise be a lot of very privileged people moaning. This is not the slickest or most disciplined preview I’ve ever seen, but it does have the makings of something truly special, and will certainly be a worthwhile experiment either way. Or, as they say on the internet, Check Out These Sixteen Reasons Why The Internet Is Totally Weird (Number 6 Will Blow Your Mind!).

Queueue will be performed in the Modern Art Cafe from the 3rd-5th June.

Cards, Charizard and Championships: a chat with Oxford Pokémon Society

Photo: Stéfan on Flickr

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 27 May 2016. It was a collaboration with my good friend Redha Rubaie, who is a very good student journalist in his own right – he doesn’t have a blog, but as soon as I persuade him to get one I’ll point you all his way. Huge thanks also to Lychee Lu for being so nice when we interviewed him, and putting up with out dumb questions about Charizard.

‘Gotta catch ’em all!’ The rallying cry of a generation of schoolchildren, a generation currently in the process of growing up, getting jobs, and (in some unfortunate cases) studying at Oxford. Hence the Oxford Pokémon Society, a group of young aficionados who meet regularly to play, discuss, and generally enjoy everyone’s favourite child-friendly blood sport. Heading them up is Lychee Lu, a third-year biochemist and lifelong Poké-fan, who met with us to discuss trading cards, orange dragons and the ever-changing nature of the franchise.

Lychee kicked off by telling us his role within the society. “In the Pokémon society, like most other societies, we have standard committee positions, but we’ve also decided to give them an interesting spin. So the president is the Champion, followed by the vice president, who’s the Dragon Tamer, and the secretary is the Master of Minutes, and the welfare officer is Nurse Joy, understandably. And the treasurer is the Keeper of Plushies, because out society has lots of plushies, as you’ll know if you’ve seen our stall at freshers’ fair.”

What plushies does the society have? “We started with just what our members had – we had Pikachu, who’s the obvious choice, I suppose. And then we have a few random ones as well, I think some people had some Evolutions, which seem to be very popular with people, just because maybe they look kind of cute, and we have some of the Legendary Pokémon as well.”

What are Lychee’s favourite starter Pokémon, and which generation of the game does he prefer? “I’ve always played the card game, but I was never allowed a GameBoy growing up, and then when I came to Oxford I got the money to actually buy one, that was when Omega Ruby and Sapphire came out, so that was technically my first game. But I’ve since played some of the others on emulators and such. I first started playing the card game competitively at the Diamond and Pearl stage, so a lot of my favourite Pokémon come from that generation. But generation one is probably my favourite, in terms of the all-roundedness and the different aspects of the Pokémon world it represents.”

“I used to collect the cards a lot as a child. I grew up in Singapore, and I think a lot of my friends around me were playing as well. But I never played it until I got on to secondary school. One day I was watching TV, watching the Pokémon TV show actually, and one of the commercial breaks they had an ad for the Pokémon national championships. I didn’t realise people had actual competitions for this, so I went along, and I’ve been playing ever since. I played in Singapore through my A levels, and then I came here and discovered the local Pokémon community, and I’ve since been travelling around the country with my friends to play.”

Pokémon is a famously competitive scene – why does the game create such passion? “I suppose, with any kind of game, when you reach a rather high level it does get pretty skill-based, which I’d like to think Pokémon is. Certainly it has a lot of players, though not as many as it used to. I was at last year’s UK National Championships, and I’d say we had a good 250 people for the card game, and about 600-700 for the video game side, it was quite a sizeable number, and with that kind of pool you do get a good amount of competition.”

What does Lychee think of the criminally overrated Charizard? “I’m not sure – my personal favourite is Dialga, the metal dragon from Pokémon Diamond. I think people just have a strange fascination with dragons in general, they’re such a huge thing in popular culture. I suppose Charizard is essentially a fire dragon, and he’s one of the starters, which made it quite accessible to people, so I guess that all contributed to the reputation he’s got.”

Many a Pokémon player will remember the infamously creepy Lavender Town from the early games. Is Pokémon ultimately for kids or adults? “This is actually something my fellow card game players and I have discussed quite often – most of them are older than I am, generally mid-twenties or early thirties. We were comparing the designs of the older cards and the newer ones. The newer cards have a lot more text on them, and some of it’s even quite complicated. There is actually a professional exam now which you have to be able to pass to judge competitions officially, and it’s mainly about the intricate wordings of the text. It’s not quite something that small children would be able to pick up immediately. So in that sense, I’d say their target audience has shifted, slightly. There’s a generation which grew up with Pokémon, so it’s adjusted along with them.”

How would Lychee persuade potential new members to give Pokémon a go? “We do face this problem a lot at freshers’ fair;  a lot of people walk by and say ‘oh, I remember that from like ten, fifteen years ago’, but they might be reluctant to give it a go now. It’s a similar situation for almost all of us in the society, and we tell them, essentially, you can always pick it up again. Especially the competitive side to it, I guess when people see it they realise it can actually be a lot more fun and skill-based, which can help get people interested. If you enjoyed it in the past, you’ll certainly enjoy it a lot more now. Like, have you tried Pokémon with alcohol? That’s something most ten year-olds won’t have tried, and I can say from experience that it’s great fun.”

Woyzeck – A review

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 26 May 2016.

National society plays don’t seem to get much in the way of hype, at least not from the usual Oxford theatre outlets. This is a shame, because Woyzeck might be the best play the Burton-Taylor has seen all term. A fragmentary horror story about one soldier’s mental breakdown, it’s a grisly, relentless, thoroughly gripping piece of theatre, and it would be a real pity if punters were turned off just by the language it’s performed in.

Woyzeck is a soldier. He is also afraid. He’s introduced waking up from a nightmare, and it’s an apt summary of the play as a whole. Characters, locations and events flash past at breakneck speed. Actions are brutal and motivations inscrutable, the play constantly walking a fine line between lucidity and outright madness. The plot is abstract, but the individual scenes are concrete, the whole drama revolving around Woyzeck’s fear and humiliation. The action takes place on a minimally-dressed stage; confident and subtle lighting cues convey the various abstracted locations, while surtitles are projected onto the wall behind the actors.

Woyzeck has a lot of moving parts, but the actors manage to make the whole thing gel. Stephen Jones is phenomenal in the title role, by turns charming, intense, humble and scary, he gives an absolutely barnstorming performance. Director Ben Schaper made an intelligent choice in casting a slightly older actor, visibly marking him out from the younger supporting cast in a way which demonstrates the character’s alienation. Ela Portnoy is charismatically grim as mercurial outsider Margreth, and Brigit Rauchbauer is delightfully twisted as the bloodthirsty Doctor Coffinnail. Henner Petin also deserves praise for taking the comparatively minor role of Woyzeck’s friend and implied lover Andres, and imbuing it with an intense humanity, which makes his tragic fate at the play’s climax all the more moving. The cast perfectly captures the morbid, off-kilter tone of the script, and they stick with it right to the end.

There are a few shortcomings. The play’s relentless action leaves the audience with little room to breathe, and the play has to try harder and harder to shock as it goes on. There were a few technical faults too – actors at the opening night performance frequently stood in front of the surtitle screen, which was a pain for poor monolinguists like me, and the surtitles themselves struggled to keep up with the actors’ delivery. The visible mouse cursor and obvious transitions between slides didn’t look great either.

But these quibbles likely won’t matter for the play’s intended audience. Woyzeck is a hard, fast, uncompromising drama, and that sense of daring and self-confidence makes a nice change from the deliberately halting BT shows of late. So don’t be put off if you don’t speak German; this is some of the best student drama you’ll see all term. Although good luck getting to sleep after watching that final scene.