Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.
Since tomorrow I’m jetting off* to exotic Shepherd’s Bush to see schoolfriends, tonight I’m not doing anything more exotic than reading & domesticity.
Last night, I went to see All Roads Lead To Rome at the Burton-Taylor, which I mentioned in a previous post. Reviews have already appeared in the Cherwell (preview), the Daily Info and in the Oxford Theatre Review; unfortunately, only the Daily Info appreciates the quality of the acting, and the OTR the truly dreadful nature of the design.
Maynard’s concept; the adaptation of Antony & Cleopatra and Romeo & Juliet as a single piece of work, with all four actors playing a multitude of parts; Charlotte Norris is Juliet but also Charmian (surely Shakespeare’s most beautiful, tragic minor role for a woman); Alex Bowles, Antony and Mercutio among others. Matt Maltby is good as Romeo but actually rather better as Eros; Ellen Buddle delights as Cleopatra but is also a memorable Balthasar and Lady Capulet. It was lovely to see her as Balthasar; for some reason, Oxford casts her almost exclusively as mothers and wives.
Good theatre depends heavily on shared vision and total commitment. In student theatre, the strong personalities and teeming egos of a young company make the form difficult; given that we’re all also fighting to do degrees, the latter is usually impossible. Director Will Maynard has been hampered by a short rehearsal period, and, I imagine, a tiny budget, but some decisions could have been made which would have taken seconds and cost nothing. The actors shout. With the exception of Ellen Buddle as Cleopatra, they do it chronically. To say ‘stop shouting’ is the work of a moment. Snapping the CDs of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (played between scenes, even louder than the shouting) would have been completed in the twinkling of an eye, leaving plenty of time to find better props (Alex Bowles’s Antony attacked himself with a ridiculous little IKEA butter-knife) and nightwear for Charlotte Norris’s Juliet. Miss Norris certainly has the figure to appear onstage in whatever state of undress she chooses, but since instead she is preoccupied with clutching the (unhemmed – unlikely) bedsheets about her form in a manner suspiciously modest for such a sexually-charged Juliet in afterglow (and which is not, it must be said, entirely successful in protecting her modesty), the compromise fails. Juliet would be naked; Norris is distracted from her acting by trying not to be so, and the audience is much too close for anybody’s comfort. Nightwear. I thought we’d all got over the thrill of gratuitous nudity in student theatre? While someone took his leading ladies shopping, Maynard could have been looking over his appallingly-written programme notes (printing time – 30 seconds).
I also understand both the problems of attracting a good set designer to the BT, and the crippling workload which inevitably falls on a Burton-Taylor PM, but wads of gaffer tape and cheap, garish fabrics are to be avoided. The props are also dreadful from start to finish. This said, this loudly and lamentingly said, the acting is excellent. Ellen Buddle and Matt Maltby make the production shine; Buddle in particular gives a fascinating performance. Her voice, sometimes weak, has acquired breathtaking strength and maturity, while her physicality (small and slight, she is not a natural Cleopatra in appearance) mixes the woman and the goddess to great effect. Nothing is wasted, self-indulgent or gratuitous; Buddle shows in this complex, truncated role (the truncation increases the role’s difficulty, stripping an actor of her natural weapons, the ability to fight fire with fire) the ability to fit the action to the word and the word to the action without excess, even at moments of high tragedy. She is at her best at Antony’s death. Bowles balances the martial man and the lover with uneven results; if we cannot quite believe in either Fulvia or Octavia, his passion for Cleopatra is never in doubt. He makes intelligent use of the text, on the whole, only slightly creating the impression that some lines and speeches could have been more fully considered.
Maltby and Norris sing in one key as the young lovers. Romeo is, and I think always will be, a dreadful part & an annoying lover, but Maltby invests him with an intelligence and wide-eyed charm that becomes the keynote of the lovers’ relationship; the wonder with which they respond to each others’ bodies, a wonder that they do not lose even in death. The staging of the tomb scene was one of the few moments in which Maynard showed real directorial originality; the smiling, half-sleepy Juliet’s curl towards Romeo as she awoke, embracing her husband while not realising he was dead, chilled and charmed the audience. Unfortunately, this was also one of the moments at which the intercutting of the Roman and Veronan stories backfired; so transfixed were the audience, waiting for the inevitable, horrible moment of Juliet’s realisation, that the beginning of Cleopatra’s suicide was almost lost.
It is usual, in student (and indeed many professional) stagings of Shakespeare, to spend much of your time as an audience member feeling sure that the actors have no idea what they’re saying. It is a tribute, then, to the company’s collective intelligence and talent that, after three weeks, they should have such a firm grip on their material. I have seen full-length, fully-rehearsed productions where Shakespeare’s words become only noises, rattling bolts of emotion with no attention to the wordplay, to the beauty of the language. The production is already a huge success; the two remaining performances will sell out. I just wish that the appearance of the play matched the abilities of the cast.
Next week, I’m seeing A Few Good Men and Richard III, the latter hopefully in the company of an American friend who wants to see some good Oxford theatre. Natalie Holden’s production ought to suffice. Plans for Hamlet, after mid-week misery, have rallied & the project now has a whole new sense of direction. I’m very excited & feeling v positive. Meanwhile, I have Austen & Darwin to read (although thankfully not in conjunction with each other). The activities of my MSt group this week expanded to watching Lost in Austen and thinking up Dickens-inspired porn titles. Never has one Facebook status update provoked so many friends to displays of such imaginative obscenity. Also! Lewis was filming at my college yesterday. In order to cling to some shred of the privacy I resign in a thousand other ways on this blog, I won’t say which, but given the dearth of access roads in Oxford & the relentless recycling of the same four locations in every Oxford-based TV drama, you can probably guess. Laurence Fox was being beautiful. Kevin Whately was being crumpled. They walked about on camera, eating chips and chatting like best mates; and then, off-camera, continued to walk about and eat chips while chatting in exactly the same, old-married-couple way. I heart them.
*for ‘jetting off’, read ‘getting on a bus for a journey which, if last week’s activity is anything to go by, is likely to last three hours as opposed to the advertised 100 minutes’.