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.

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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.

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.

Review: The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 16 January 2017.

With any new publication, especially concerning the “universal” bard, it’s worth asking, ‘Who is this for?’ The New Oxford Shakespeare is no different. Coming to us from general editors Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan, Oxford University Press’s fourth iteration of the complete works is actually not one book, but four: The Complete Works: Modern Critical Edition (under review here), The Critical Reference Edition (containing the folio and quarto texts in their original spelling), the Authorship Companion (explaining the editors’ choices in detail), and an online resource gathering all of the above. The Complete Works’ modern spelling and slick cover design marks it as one for Waterstones’ shelves, but its prospects for this audience seem dubious. At fifty pounds it’s hardly in the ‘stocking filler’ price range, and it comes at a time when access to Shakespeare is widening anyway, through live streams of major productions and online resources like Folger Digital Texts. Despite apparently having taken 27 credited editors and consultants ten years of work, The New Oxford Shakespeare seems uncertain of its audience, and for all its critical insight it never quite satisfies.

This lack of satisfaction is partly due to a frankly bewildering introduction. The first part, ‘Why Read Shakespeare’s Complete Works?’, takes the standard tack of listing every major historical or literary figure to ever say anything vaguely positive about Shakespeare. This routine list is enlivened by the editors’ knack for cringeworthy phrases. We are told that “Shakespeare is the ghost with the most”, and that The Complete Works is “an anthology of extraordinarily powerful and varied virtual reality game worlds.” Besides the fact that they mix metaphors like a sea of troubles, lines like these feel incredibly patronising, especially addressed to a reader who has already picked up the Complete Works, and so presumably does not need persuading of Shakespeare’s importance. The presentation is also woefully inconsistent. One section attempts to refute accusations of racism in Shakespeare’s plays with a bullet-point list of notable non-white people who have interacted with the bard. All of Shakespeare’s other appreciators are generously discussed in continuous prose rather than simple listing. The introduction also mentions both Delia Bacon and J. Thomas Looney, without once stopping to clarify who these people are, despite its stated aim to create “something more accessible”.

This inconsistency further manifests in the second part of the Introduction, ‘Why Read This Complete Works?’, which explains the book’s editorial decisions. The editors note that this is “the first edition of Shakespeare’s complete works to include music for the songs, whenever a reliable original score is available”. While this is slightly less radical than the editors state (the 2015 Norton Shakespeare’s online edition featured recordings of the original music), it is a genuinely worthwhile move. The Tempest, for example, reads very differently with a more pronounced emphasis on music, and this simple change does more to inspire fresh reading than any waffle about virtual reality. Similarly good are the performance notes accompanying each play. The Tempest opens with the following:

“The play begins aboard a ship at sea. This is often accomplished through the uses of wind machines or sound effects, and ropes and sails manipulated by the actors. In early modern stagings a cannonball was rolled down a wooden trough to simulate the sound of thunder.”

This running commentary draws attention to the gaps and ambiguities of the script, as well as to different periods and types of staging. But while these performance-centric details are admirable, the authorship choices are baffling. Collaboration is this edition’s watchword, reflecting the trend in Shakespeare scholarship over the last fifteen years or so, as seen in books like Shakespeare, Co-Author and William Shakespeare and Others. This edition has grabbed a few headlines for listing Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI plays. Yet its other choices betray its bardolatry; Shakespeare is interminably front and centre, even when his hand in a play is minimal. The collaboratively-written The Spanish Tragedy and Sir Thomas More are represented only by the bits ‘probably’ written by Shakespeare, with no indication of what came before or after, obscuring his impact on the overall script, and frustrating any reader unfamiliar with the plays. This fragmented presentation comes to a head with The History of Cardenio. A lost collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, it was adapted by eighteenth century playwright Lewis Theobald as Double Falsehood. In presenting it here the editors have used specialist software to identify the words most likely to have been written by Shakespeare, and left out everything else. This approach results in unreadable gobbets of text:

RODERICK   Why he hath pressed this absence, sir I know not
But [             ]  letters [
Wherein [Cardenio], good Camillo’s son,
[             ] (as he says) [
[                                 ] gold
To purchase certain horse that like him well

know the value of

There is some critical value to an exercise like this, but presenting it this way is not only frustrating to read (and hardly accessible for the general reader), it contradicts the sense of co-authorship the editors seek to emphasise. It may have been better to include the complete texts while typographically demarcating the collaborators. The Oxford Middleton, for instance, put Middleton’s additions to Macbeth in bold, and the Arden Titus Andronicus presents an inserted scene in a different typeface. The insistence on isolating Shakespeare serves to increase his iconic stature, rather than qualify it.

All told, The New Oxford Shakespeare has a distressing tendency to miss the wood for the trees. For the most egregious example we must return to the introduction. In relating Shakespeare to today’s theatre, the editors spend a page on Hamilton, ‘the most conspicuous theatrical event of the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death.’ The influence, it turns out, is fairly minor, but the truly shocking moment comes in reference to playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dedicatory sonnet at the Tony Awards. The editors dutifully mention that it contained “the very Shakespearean tautology “And love is love is love is love is love”.” What they fail to mention is that the sonnet was written in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting that happened the same week. This is The New Oxford Shakespeare in a nutshell. For all its worthwhile contributions, its careful attention to detail, and its slick presentation, it suffers from a near total divorce from the context in which its material appears, be it that of 1616 or 2016.

‘The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition’ is available to buy in hardback, RRP £50.

 

Review: Henry V

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 17 November 2016.

King Henry, it should be noted, is a nasty piece of work. He’s an arrogant dictator, ruthlessly purging his own men and committing war crimes before forcing himself on a French princess. This new production of Henry V at the Corpus Christi auditorium has its faults, mostly stemming from a maximalist approach to Shakespeare’s text, but it’s worth applauding for its embrace of Henry as a despicable scumbag. It’s an uncompromising take on the character, but the cast and crew make the play’s nationalist tubthumping a thing of genuine horror.

This production opens with the edited highlights of Henry IV, before transitioning into Henry V proper. It’s an odd decision, and leads to some awkward moments (the ‘Prologue’, for example, comes fifteen minutes in). But it serves to show where things start to go wrong for the young Henry. His youthful love of Falstaff quickly morphs into outright contempt, and the eventual banishment of ‘plump Jack’ is not just cold but outright vindictive.

We see this brutal streak writ large in the older Henry: Laurence Belcher is brilliant as the ranting psychopathic tyrant. Quick to anger and devising elaborate punishments for his own men, Belcher’s Henry deliciously plays a scene of rooting out traitors, as he forces the naïve lieutenants to condemn themselves. Yet he also displays the demagogue’s knack for holding attention. His lengthy deliberations on diplomacy and torture are gripping, delivered with arresting conviction and variety – Henry is many things, but never predictable. The production is pleasing in its willingness to undermine him, too. Henry delivers the St. Crispin’s Day speech to two disgruntled guards rather than an army of fans, and, in the most subtly damning detail, he draws up the peace treaty with hands still covered in blood.

The rest of the cast acquit themselves admirably. James Bruce strikes a perfect tragicomic note as Falstaff and later Nim, nailing the physical comedy of the fat knight. Similarly good are Gerard Krasnopolski as Pistol and Harry Carter as Boy; a scrappy counterweight to Henry’s macho posturing. (Krasnopolski also performs the most impressive leek-eating ever to grace an Oxford stage). Tom Fisher is perfect as the dithering King of France, and Christopher Page is a gloriously contemptuous Dauphin.

The play’s main flaw is over-lengthiness; introductory scenes feel extraneous, and the second half flabby, mainly in service of hammering home how nasty Henry is. There’s also a bit of a problem with accents. There are some appalling attempts at Scottish and Yorkshire accents, as well as the usual cringiness of thesps affecting ‘common’ voices. It’s a nitpick, but when you’re trying to shed light on a complete monster it helps not to accidentally indulge your own stereotypes about non-royalty.

But this is still absolutely a play worth seeing. Belcher is a brilliantly monstrous leading man, backed by a production unabashed in tackling his brutality. Angry, bitter, and darkly hilarious, this is what Corpus auditorium does best. Watch it, and be thankful that we no longer allow thin-skinned psychopaths to lead international armies.

Steven Moffat: A talk at the Oxford Union

This article first appeared on The Cherwell website on 14 November 2016.

“I am rubbish.” This was the opening statement of Steven Moffat’s talk at the Oxford Union on Monday, and it’s an assessment most of the audience presumably disagreed with. Best known for helming Doctor Who and Sherlock, Moffat’s career stretches back to 1989, and covers such varied genres as children’s TV, sitcoms, feature films, as well as the BBC One dramas which helped make his name. In his brief address before a general Q&A, Moffat stressed the importance of self-awareness.

“I am rubbish. I first became aware of my rubbishness when I overheard my wife on the phone to some camera-people. ‘Don’t get him to take the lens back to Cardiff,’ she said. ‘Why? Because he’ll lose it. I know he’ll lose it. Because he’s rubbish.’ I heard her say that. I took the lens. I lost it.” But rubbishness is a universal trait: “everyone is in disguise as a competent human being.” Diligence is an important factor in success: “you can’t control how rubbish you are… but you can control how hard you work.”

Moffat has been called many things; showrunner, creator, executive producer. But the title he really cherishes is ‘Writer’. “It’s great to be a writer, because we make it up! It’s like you’ve done all the homework, and everyone else copies it.” Moffat was playfully resentful of directors. “They’ll say ‘my inspiration for this movie was this or that moment in my life or this or that artistic vision… and not the 120 pages of finished script my screenwriter gave me! Who else has that, in their job? Oh look, here’s exactly what I need to do.”

The talk then moved into an interview, starting with Doctor Who. Moffat has no patience with the idea of ‘overloading’ the audience. “Children nowadays, teenagers nowadays, are some of the cleverest audiences in history – they’re keeping up with television while texting and tweeting each other, and they’re all getting it. We try never to have a dull moment on Doctor Who.” Catering to adults is fairly straightforward – “it’s like when you go into a restaurant and you eye the children’s menu, and you wish you could order from that instead – it’s the same principle.” There are challenges – “you have to be ringingly clear” – but Moffat was adamant that “to write for children is to write better… everybody likes children’s stuff.”

As well as executive producing Doctor Who, Moffat is co-producer on Sherlock. They’re two very distinct shows, but Moffat finds the differences easy to manage. “I’ve spoken to Mark [Gatiss] about this; we’ve just got to pretend that we don’t work on both. They’re both part of the same landscape, so when a similarity crops up we just try and go with it rather than getting anxious.” It’s not a difference that keeps either writer up at night: “The Doctor is a sort of space Sherlock Holmes anyway.”

Sherlock and Doctor Who are both prestige BBC shows; how does Moffat view the corporation and its future? “The BBC is an unequivocal good – that doesn’t mean every decision it makes is good, or that it’s above reproach, but there’s nothing else in the world like it, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. The circumstances which produced it are never coming back.” Moffat is not totally enamoured of the beeb; “Mark says: ‘you love the BBC, but you don’t expect the BBC to love you back.’” Governments naturally go after the corporation; “no-one likes being criticised. If I had power over every TV critic in the world, I’d have them all executed!” Nevertheless, Moffat hopes that the BBC “remains the powerhouse that it is.”

Returning to Doctor Who, an audience member asked if there was anything Moffat could tell us about the next series. There was talk of a return of the Cybermen, perhaps even an origin story, but Moffat seemed reticent. “Anything is possible… but it’s not an idea that I’m aware of. It’s kind of been done, and I’d be hesitant to return to it. But then I generally speaking lie, so you never know”.

Conscious of potential spoilers, Moffat ended with a tease of series 10: “The Doctor will reliably save the day. There will be big speeches and evil monsters. There will be an epic amount of urgent standing. And you’ll all fall in love with Pearl Mackie as Bill.”