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?

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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.