Oriel Ball 2009 (I saw a man, he danced with his wife)

Feldspars Will Green
Feldspar's Will Green

The 2009 Oriel Commemoration Ball was last night, and it was fabulous – so fabulous I’m having to hold one eye shut as I squint to check whether ‘Commemoration’ is spelt correctly. It looks wrong. But then everything looks wrong right now, including sunlight and my poor haggard face. Well, less haggard than scarlet and bleary, since my default response to such nights is puffy horror rather than interesting pallour.

It was a wonderful and impeccably-organised evening. One of our party was with-wheelchair, and inside the venue access was mostly quite good (despite a raised lawn in first quad). Outside, things were trickier; a lack of ramps made the dropped kerb outside Oriel Lodge rather hard to navigate, and I do think the Committee might have thought of that (we were the only wheelchair users, though). Oriel must be one of the least access-friendly colleges and I’m sorry to say I don’t think a wheelchair user could be there full-time as things currently stand. But the night was a great success – and unlike the St John’s Ball last year, security/committee/general personnel actually addressed Chloe and not whoever was pushing her.

The ball theme was tenuously La Belle Epoque, which translated as ‘vaguely mostly Paris’ in reality. College looked wonderful – there’s not much you can do about the ugliness of marquees, and although decorations were less in evidence than the last ball, three years ago, the three quads looked fabulous. Lighting in particular (a lot of pink and green) was very impressive. There was also a bloody terrifying mime (ancient, haggard, one of those horrible old men who can probably put his foot behind his head and doesn’t wear socks), an authentically skeevy-looking accordionist, a caricaturist, a hypnotist, a snooty tarot card reader, and, er, a midget. As Toulouse-Lautrec.

This was a bit odd, to say the least – not because of any personal objection (midget actors, like all performers, need all the gigs they can get), but because I can imagine the copy filed by any journalists in tow:  “as the future leaders of great Britain slumped onto beanbags (many in a state of undress), quaffing cocktails with names like ‘Dead Man’s Mule’ and ‘Le Pigalle’ and debating whether to take Pro Plus, a midget, hired for the occasion, was brought forth to entertain the guests” Food & drink didn’t seem to run out – the chocolate fondue, impressively, was still going at dawn. A bit after midnight, I spoke to my friend (and sometime fellow MCR committee member) David, who was organising drinks (apparently more stressful than a thesis…), who was a little bit flustered over the potential dearth of champagne: guests having knocked back the reception, a stash of five emergency cases was apparently in hiding, and college had agreed to sell the Committee more drink if the worst happened. Orpheas (also MCR, also Ball Treasurer) was standing around writing cheques from the largest and most ludicrous chequebook you’ve ever seen.

My friend Will Green’s band, Feldspar (winners of the 2008 Indy Award) played at 11 in Third Quad. I think a later slot would have served them better but the set was amazing. Buy their album, or better still see them live. Will dedicated a song to me (Waterfall Lane), possibly in memory of the week we spent in Cornwall, crying, boozing and alternating Feldspar’s bitter back catalogue with Tom Waits’s Martha and Dire Straits. It’s a great song. Will’s a great singer. And on an entirely narcissistic note, it was in third quad that three strangers came up to me and complimented me on Love’s Labour’s Lost and my performance therein. Sidenote: I am really missing the LLL cast. They are awesome. Plays are just better than anything else in the world, and it was really good to see Eleanor (Nathaniel), Phil (Costard) and Rebecca (Jacquenetta) last night. Rebecca was singing two sets in First Quad – jazz standards through the small hours.

Everybody flagged a bit around four, lying in tumbled piles on the aforementioned beanbags, while a cool and misty morning hazed up out of the stones to replace the spectacularly balmy night. The fog over Oriel Square was quite amazing – grey and damp and almost wintry. Seeing the frozen skyline behind the Survivors’ Photo, future generations will probably wonder why the hell Oriel Ball 2009 was held in Winter. Four of us had the bright idea of getting into the MCR and failing to make the coffee machine work, before clambering out onto the balcony and sniffing the exquisite morning air. Fresh and cool and much more savoury than any of us. By this point the geraniums were beginning to hurt my eyes, and eventually (at 6.18, a bloody unwholesome hour) I staggered home carrying heels and clutch bag, and with enormous jumper over ball dress. Several others (including many boys stripped of all but fragments of evening dress, and with wet hair – surely not swimming?) were doing the same thing, cringing our way over Magdalen Bridge and acknowledging that yes, we are scum with our mussed hair and dishevelled frocks, and the Cowley Road denizens looking at us with amusement (or hatred) from bus and work and other wholesome pursuits are entirely right to do so.

It was a wonderful evening. I hate that I have to leave this city soon. Any place has a trick of looking beautiful when you have to leave it, but this morning Oxford looked particularly pale and smooth, grey and clear like a stone. So much better than East Oxford ever looks at other times, even though I love the Cowley Road with its noise and madness and constant promise of life-life-life.

Although this purple prose is inspired entirely by a lachrymose, late-afternoon hangover, I wish there were more nights like this still to come, rather than four years left behind. College looked like a big untidy beach this morning, the stones gold and the debris staggering. I am lucky to have been here, and when even I can get caught up in the drowsy chanting of Oriel, Oriel after ten hours’ partying it’s an indication of just how much I’ll hate to say goodbye.

Also, the Provost was there, disco-dancing with his wife. In restrained white tie. Rarely have I seen anything so seemly or so incredibly endearing.

Love’s Labour’s Lost: last night in Merton Fellows’ Garden | DPhil supervisor

The last night of Love’s Labour’s Lost was amazing. Firstly, we managed to get back outside! Due to rain (and the threat thereof), we hadn’t performed in Merton Fellows’ Garden since opening night: although I was very fond of the chapel space, I think I was in the minority among the cast, most of whom were definitely glad to get back to the Herm and the bench and the trees. The weather was balmy, warm and still. I so wish we’d done more performances – everything was so much better on Monday night, and although Friday, Saturday and Sunday were all better than I’d expected, by Monday we had a really strong show with so much potential. I had a terrible case of post-show-blues on Tuesday (hate everything, never gonna be onstage again, nothing else has meaning, life is worthless, weep); our cast was becoming so cohesive, and a last-night party in my home college reminded me how horribly I’m going to miss the place, come August. I should say I haven’t behaved quite so badly onstage since school – Phil and I were viciously corpsing each other all night, hopefully without audience notice, and the Muscovite scene came close to hysteria when one of the beards fell off. This, even without the bottle of sherry (oh yeah, we know how to live) being passed round by Dan on the Sunday night.

An American tourist stopped me in the street yesterday to tell me I was ‘awesome’ as Moth – it completely made my (very long but very enjoyable day). I was on my way to a certain college – ladies and gentlemen, I have a DPhil supervisor. I may even have two (except I am HORRIBLY FRIGHTENED of both the additional possibilities, note to self work on this). My DPhil supervisor is beyond brilliant – she’s my first choice for supervision by about nine hundred years, and has been since Michaelmas of my first year (because, you know, I am in a constant state of evolution and flux). Admittedly, I don’t yet have a research proposal, place, or funding, but it’s nice to think that should the great fruit machine of postgraduate possibility vomit out 3 7s or similar, I’ll have someone willing to teach me in October 2010.

Still unemployed come September. I must say, getting job rejections definitely becomes easier; quite often, when I get the emails, I can’t remember what the job was for in the first place.

Love’s Labour’s Lost – Merton Antechapel

The rain it raineth Saturday. Long and hard, until it had drenched the steeples, drowned the clocks and put pay to any chance of our performing in Merton Fellows’ Gardens last night. And so to Merton Antechapel, and the truly heroic efforts of Jenny O’Sullivan and Phil Aherne to get everything moved and marshalled in time. Sam Roots and Geraldo seemed to spend hours moving chairs, while the other 15 of the cast moved from pillar to post to Mob Quad 2:5 (cries from the non-Mertonians: “But we don’t know where that is!”), Merton’s Accessible Guest Room and now the home of 17 actors and 25 costumes. Not to mention several very wet carrier bags of civilian clothing.

As predicted in my last post, yesterday’s audience were a bunch of smilers – having a great time, it seemed, but not being very loud about it! The pace was much better than the first night & we definitely knocked a good few minutes off the (already reasonably short) running time. Obviously, with an abrupt move from open-air to indoor, thrust staging, the blocking was a little bit hair-raising (we had to reblock the end of Scene 9 while half the cast was on stage) – vocally, though, the move was an interesting one. Outdoors, vocal power is key & usually the girls have a harder time of it than the boys. Men have a more impressive lung capacity & our male actors are, as it happens, predominantly more experienced actors (or singers in the case of Dan McLean, for example) than our women. Women’s higher voices are more likely to be lost in the wind. In the antechapel, however, the acoustics are determined by a high vaulted ceiling, stone floor, and a rood screen leading to the chapel body itself. Suddenly, the men’s voices are far more problematic; their reverberation triggers the echo and, for the first time, audiences said that the girls excelled the boys in clarity (if not always in volume). Definitely something to think about; I wonder, if I was directing an entirely chapel play, what I’d do to ensure good sound. What the rules are, if I’d need/use/be allowed to use deadeners. And whom, in all of Oxford, would be the best person to talk to…

3rd show tonight. Setting off in a second. See you there!

Love’s Labour’s Lost (first night)…

…was attended by a series of miracles. Firstly (and for the first time in our whole rehearsal period), we competed with only one plane, no drilling, only one garden party and neither wind nor rain. More-than-sold-out, our audience cheerfully (well, mostly) sat on MCR furniture, benches and picnic blankets in addition to the hired seating (tip for future audiences: get there early. I am excessively paranoid about being late for the theatre, and even I was surprised how quickly we filled up once it got to 7). I say ‘mostly cheerfully’ because one latecomer had a strop at the interval about sitting on the grass, meaning that our heroic Production Manager (a misleading term which actually encompasses ‘all known technical staff’) had to break into Merton JCR and steal two more chairs. Merton Fellows’ Garden looked beautiful (as the space which inspired Narnia could hardly fail to do), and even provided some of the props – Jacquenetta’s final scene bouquet (wait and see) was hand-tied by the College Head Gardener, and buttonholes for Moth and Armado were plucked from the flowerbeds during the second half.

Our dressing room is James Lowe (Navarre)’s bedroom. This is large and nice enough to fulfil every stereotype about Oxford accommodation, and is also impressively neat. James himself was a saint, first off reverting to some sort of Edwardian priss (appropriate, that) by suggesting that The Men Let The Ladies Go And Dress, and then amenably spending the next three hours going ‘Can I come in? NO SORRY SORRY I DIDN’T WANT TO ANYWAY’. The rest of the time, when not backstage (i.e. Behind The Tree, Quietly Freezing), the cast masses in the Music Room, a tiny rose-fringed building that audience members occasionally mistake for the theatre. Sam Roots (Dumaine) spends a lot of time sitting around playing the piano with casual and terrifying brilliance.

And the performance itself? Went well. Much better, in fact, that anyone could have hoped for. When the 13 actors offstage for I.1 heard James say ‘Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives […]’, there was a certain amount of shock that this was, finally, actually happening, but apart from one hiccup in the last scene (over which may a charitable veil be drawn), it went well. The wait for the first laugh is always horrific, but fortunately came with Phil Aherne as Costard, establishing for the rest of the evening that what this audience would respond to was: campness, silly voices, silly walks, silly noises, and sex jokes. So that was what we gave them. Tonight we’ll probably have one of those terrifying audiences that only laughs to show they understand the language, or worse, a bunch of smilers. Note to public: ACTORS CANNOT HEAR YOUR SMILES. In the case of this actor, without her glasses and in the dusk, she cannot even see your faces. Laugh. Loud, and often. One unexpected effect of the semi-blindness was that when Daniel McLean ran towards me in full Muscovite gear (comedy beard, now with the addition of a fluffy hat), I had no idea who he was and thought I was about to be assaulted by Rasputin.

Have spent the morning asking myself profound questions (‘Where did I put my glasses before showering? How did my room get like this? Where is the selotape?’) and nursing certain bruises from an AMAZING Propeller workshop just before the show. More on that when I get time, but now, I have Primark shirts to buy…

Love’s Labour’s Lost (first night tonight)

First night tonight. We had a last line run this morning & have a workshop with Propeller this afternoon. Tickets continue to sell – we only have 40 tickets left out of a possible 400 for the whole run!

The weather could go either way – when we got into Merton Fellows’ Garden this morning, it was blue skies and sun, but then the wind picked up again and it started to cloud over. The ominous grey lasted for most of the runthrough, but then as we were leaving (at about 11) golden sun broke out again. The wind is still quite high, but as I look out of my window it seems quite warm and bright. Personally, I love the chapel space and wouldn’t mind being there.

Very nervous, but feeling positive about how the show will go. Just need to keep up the pace and adjust to props/costumes etc. To anybody who has been following these blog entries, and everybody coming tonight, many thanks; I hope you enjoy it as much as we have. And if you haven’t booked yet, hurry! Email lovedandlostinoxford@gmail.com while there are still tickets left!

Love’s Labour’s Lost (1 day to go)

We had our wet weather venue rehearsal this morning, running the show as best we could. Despite apprehension about moving, several of us have turned out to prefer the space, myself included. It’s more obviously a thrust stage, offering us greater freedom of movement, and a second level (though probably only Krishna, as Berowne, will get the chance to go up there). When not onstage (or writing essays), the cast explored the chapel (we’ll be performing in the antechapel) and flicked through the book Sam’s reading – Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. Sam is a terrifying (Material) scientist, but I could understand it so it must be pretty mainstream.

The men of Merton are not in fine fettle this morning, Ed White (Armado) feeling rather tired if not emotional, and Phil Aherne (Costard) existing in a straightforward alcoholic fug. However, Krishna’s mum is somewhere cooking delicious food, so presumably he’s being well looked after. Geraldo Silva Neto (Marcade) is back from Italy; Eleanor Lischka (Nathaniel)’s exams are almost over and – apart from the fact that Dan McLean (Longaville) was in the library until 5 this morning, we’re more-or-less raring to go.

It’s bloody cold in that chapel. We’re on our lunch break now, til 3 (second run & DRESS in Merton Fellows’ Garden) and I’m using the time to interim to have hall lunch (free, in the sense I don’t have to pay for it yet) about doing Father’s Day shopping, debate the wisdom of dashing home for WARMER CLOTHES, and send begging emails to squeeze more friends & relations into Saturday night. Saturday night is now completely sold out; Friday is almost sold out, and Sunday and Monday are definitely going fast (I just reserved 6 tickets for the last night, and apparently there aren’t many more left…). And, of course, I’m here to blog. It’s really bloody cold.

Love’s Labour’s Lost | by William Shakespeare | 19-22 June 2009, performance nightly | Merton Fellows’ Garden | tickets £7, £5 concs, book @ lovedandlostinoxford@gmail.com | dir. Krishna Omkar and Ellen Davnall | A Merton Floats Production | THE COMPANY: Phil Aherne, Sophie Duncan, Eleanor Lischka, Samantha Losey, James Lowe, Max de Marenbon, Martha May, Dan McLean, Charlotte Mulliner, Krishna Omkar, Emily Roessler, Sam Roots, Michaël Roy, Geraldo Silva Neto, Rebecca Tay,  Ed White |

Love’s Labour’s Lost: rehearsals & workshop with Propeller!

l to r: Liam (Dull), James (Navarre) Phil (Costard) and Krishna (directing).
l to r: Liam (Dull), James (Navarre) Phil (Costard) and Krishna (directing).

We are rehearsing. It’s good. Our cast is somewhat reshuffled and now complete – we’ve welcomed Martha May as the Princess, and Dan McLean as Longaville. I’m sorrier than I can say to see Rob and Ellen go (nothing sinister – work and family commitments) but the new people are great and it’s good to be a secure company. Merton & Oriel are especially well-represented – the latter provides myself, Rebecca Tay as Jacquenetta and Dan McLean. The last two are both JCR Theologians, for added crossover.

The weather, too, is glorious; the pastier amongst us (…that’d be Ed and I) are swooning slightly in the heat, but I wouldn’t miss the chance to rehearse in the space. When I directed the Oriel Garden Show, two years ago, we were lucky enough to rehearse in the quad for a good three weeks or so; now, college red-tape seems to make everything a lot trickier. Thank God Merton is so huge – we’re a long way from any rooms, and the one eye-witness report (my friend Jodie saying ‘this isn’t meant to sound creepy, but I think I watched your rehearsal’) suggested our spectator actually enjoys the sound of a bit of Shakepseare in the afternoons.

I’m playing Moth. No, not the fairy. The page. The small, compulsively clever, unstoppable show-off and occasionally vicious little brat to whose canonical characteristics Krishna and I seem to have added mild hyperactivity. I never stand still. Except on the bench (our sole bit of set!). Moth is the page and comic foil to Don Armado, the Spanish lover-and-or-fighter who brings chaos to the court of Navarre. And he never shuts up. At the moment I think Moth’s about 13-14; a good choice for a page, and, obviously, any boy I’m playing can’t be too mature or adolescent. He’s crueller than I originally thought; the cross-casting of Holofernes and Nathaniel (Ellen Davnall and Eleanor Lischka) means that when he mocks them, it’s a young teenage boy having a nasty go at two old women; different resonances to the usual schoolboy/pantaloon clash. He also has more of an arc than I’d expected – we see him meet & develop a friendship with Costard (Phil Aherne). These notes could become tediously detailed, but one thing that’s really coming out is that not only (as K points out) is he almost always the teacher in what should be a reversed pupil/teacher relationship), but he has more natural authority; in a scene where Armado has to imprison Costard, it’s Moth who actually takes him off to prison, with far less fuss. I imagine him a bit like one of the Magdalen/New College schoolboys you see walking through town all the time.

I must admit that I’m already having the occasional shiver of stage fright. It’s such a long time since I acted, especially acted-without-also-directing, and the usual formula that having directed plays (the biggest possible stress) cured my stagefright (acting = relatively unterrifying) has gone. Gone. I’m worried I’m too old, curvy, female, high-pitched, quiet and clumsy for this part. But then, all the scampering and running I’m doing has gone pretty well so far, although there’s one weird little bit of dancing that (while v effective) is already a possible source of nerves. I have no idea where to practice it – my room doesn’t give me enough of a run-up, and jigging about in the corridors could be interpreted as psychological warfare enacted on my neighbours. Equally, doing it outside (presumably after dark) might easily give rises to suspicions of a satanic rite. Oh the vicississitudes of my life.

Lots of movement is definitely the way to go – not only because Moth has some incredibly wordy speeches to deliver (fortunately my forays into Latin are v brief), but because of the one helpful fact I’ve gleaned from neurotic academic scrabbling through Love’s Labour’s Lost‘s stage history. Well, no, there are two. The first is that the play was written as am-dram, for lawyers, to be performed in the Inner Temple. Hence, you might say, all the Latin and loquacity, and leave it at that. IN FACT, the legal profession clearly have the filthiest minds of those alive today – the play, so sweetly beautiful at the RSC, is actually pure filth. We discovered this at the readthrough. You can get a lot of mileage from the word ‘fructify’. Collapse of cast.

Anyway, my one useful fact is that, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the play has often been staged in a double-bill with The Tempest and, in such cases, Moth usually doubles Ariel.

So as far as movement goes, we’re probably on the right track, then.

Obviously, the rehearsal period is going to get extremely intense between now and our 19 June opening, but that’ll be no change for our cast – 15 of us were in plays in 5th week, a couple more have productions in 6th, and two of us (Ed and myself, fortunately) have Masters dissertations to hand in, four days before we open! Oh, and Phil and James just did finals or something. Whatevs. And everybody else seems to do a lot of rowing (cue lycra, muscles, and plenty of people to finally explain what ‘rowed on’ means – I know, it’s terrible).

Before show week, though, we have workshops oh yes. Propeller is coming to work with us (I AM SO PATHETICALLY EXCITED ABOUT THIS) during their week in Oxford, we’ll be learning ballroom dancing and also choral singing (this last in preparation for the final scene). I think we’re quite a musical cast – although obviously Rebecca has been doing musical theatre all through Oxford – so that should be fun. Workshops seem to be the latest thespy vogue, along with 1) experimental theatre in the O’Reilly (which seems to have edged out Hertford Bop Cellar as Top Place To Wear Leggings In) and 2) thespian blogs. Er. Whoops. I am all in favour; training is such an important part of rehearsals, particularly for student actors who want to turn professional, but for whom having a first degree makes subsequent training much more expensive (and thus necessarily shorter). Obviously nothing we do here can replace drama school training (even Sian [Robins-Grace] who went from Oxford to the RSC in a matter of months had done BADA etc. in the holidays) for actors, but every little helps.

But yes. We are rehearsing. It’s good.

Love’s Labour’s Lost | by William Shakespeare | 19-22 June 2009, performance nightly | Merton Fellows’ Garden | tickets £7, £5 concs, book @ lovedandlostinoxford@gmail.com | dir. Krishna Omkar and Ellen Davnall | A Merton Floats Production | THE COMPANY: Phil Aherne, Sophie Duncan, Eleanor Lischka, Samantha Losey, James Lowe, Martha May, Dan McLean, Charlotte Mulliner, Krishna Omkar, Emily Roessler, Sam Roots, Michaël Roy, Geraldo Silva Neto, Rebecca Tay, Liam Wells, Ed White |

P.S. Another lesson I am learning from rehearsals – do not look scared and horrified when a co-actor (Michaël, in fact) tells you he reads your blog every day. This is good. This is why you’re writing. You want this to happen (LLL cast, hi!).

Love’s Labour’s Lost | exploring the space at Merton & photoshoot!

Our theatre: looking towards the Herm in Merton Fellows' Gardens
Our theatre: looking towards the Herm in Merton Fellows' Gardens

Sunday was our photoshoot for Love’s Labour’s Lost. A friend of mine said later on her blog that she’d seen someone inexplicably dressed as a king in Merton Fellows’ Garden – it was Ed! Looking rather like his namesake Edward VII in beard and ermine, our Don Armado put up nobly with the heat (another sufferer was Eleanor Lischka, as our curate Natalia) while black-tied boys and girls in white frolicked about. I suspect some sort of Faustian pact to pay for the costumes – they’re all really gorgeous. I’m still not sure exactly what I’ll be wearing for Moth (parcels are arriving from Cheltenham shortly, so I’m told…) but v1.0 features a little cream jacket that (on closer inspection) turned out to have an interesting tag. Apparently Moth v1.0 was worn by an undergraduate Kate Beckinsane, playing Nina in The Seagull! Above is a picture of our theatre space as it looked yesterday – but for a 360 degree experience, go here and click on ‘The Herm’.

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The proper images will doubtless be on Facebook soon, but above and below are some sneak previews. The shoot was so much fun – my last was spent freezing in a cellar while the shirtless leading man developped goosebumps. Our photographers were very well organised, and our four court ladies were gambolling about like something out of the Branagh Much Ado About Nothing. Of course, we had the classic photo shoot mishaps of one dress zip malfunctioning  – a certain actress had to keep facing the front – and a gaggle of excited tourists who may have ended up in one of the shots. Meanwhile, enjoy the splash, email for tickets &- oh, I nearly forgot. We now have a co-director, Ellen Davnall – a brilliant addition to the company. She’s also a Mertonian, and will be a huge asset to the company. Our MD is John Murton (the best pun will be rewarded with chocolate) and our Marketing Officer, Yasmin Mitha. Just please let the weather be like this in 8th…

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Ed nobly does not die of sunstroke. Scout drops unconscious at apparent resurrection of Russian Tsar.
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The director directs, the photographers photograph, and Herm is not amused.

Courts of France and Navarre practice their loving looks. Emily and Robert horrify with their general beauty.
Courts of France and Navarre practice their loving looks. Emily and Robert horrify with their general beauty.

Love’s Labour’s Lost | by William Shakespeare | 19-24 June 2009 | Merton Fellows’ Garden | tickets £7, £5 concs | dir. Krishna Omkar and Ellen Davnall | A Merton Floats Production | THE COMPANY: Phil Aherne, Ellen Buddle, Robert Dacre, Sophie Duncan, Eleanor Lischka, Samantha Losey, James Lowe, Charlotte Mulliner, Krishna Omkar, Emily Roessler, Sam Roots, Michaël Roy, Geraldo Silva Neto, Rebecca Tay, Liam Wells, Ed White | lovedandlostinoxford@gmail.com

REVIEW: Madame de Sade | theatre writing & why I love it

Deborah Findlay and Judi Dench in Madame de Sade. Judi Dench is not actually playing Mme de Sade, which is a bit confusing since everybody's come to see her ANYWAY.

Yesterday afternoon I turned down a ticket to see Judi Dench in Madame de Sade, in the names of diligence and economy, and yesterday evening I was sitting in the Royal Circle at the Wyndhams watching her all the same (thank you Krishna). My mother, when I rang like dutiful daughter, to say “Do not ring me this evening, maman, for I am AWAY to the CAPITAL, what yes of course the coursework essay due tomorrow’s done, BIEN SUR”, said first “Er, I don’t think she’s on, darling” and secondly, also without thinking, “the reviews have been dreadful“. She then did rather rectify her mistake by saying but OF COURSE Judi Dench, Frances Barber, I would cross water to see it, hurrah for your friends, and my wrath was appeased. Mum’s first remark can be explained as follows: Dame Judi, while leaving the Stage Door last Friday fell and seriously sprained her ankle (does she not have people who PREVENT THIS?), but was back onstage four performances later. I had managed not to say anything so absolutely ungracious as ‘but is she on?’ before getting to the theatre, though I did ask the attendants as soon as we arrived. And she was.

I can’t be objective about Judi Dench. I do objectively know and may even concede that Harriet Walter is my all-time favourite actress, but I don’t love her like I do Dame Judi. I realise this is the fourth play I’ve seen her in, and I adore her. She makes me clutch my hair like a tiny Liverpudlian girl during Beatlemania, I have watched every episode of As Time Goes By AND the Trevor Nunn musical version of Comedy of Errors (in which she doesn’t sing. Beautifully. No, it’s really good, no it is, shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about, it is INTENSELY HUMMABLE and records an early example of Roger Rees being doe-eyed. For history), AND oh god, I adore her. So it’s pleasant for me to report that, once again, she was very, very, very good.

Despite being on a cane (she took three steps in, I thought, oh – I wonder if the cane’s part of the character or from the fall? She took another three steps and I thought my GOD, the woman’s both a saint and in agony), and looking raw with pain at the curtain call, she continues to be both emotionally and technically brilliant. You hear every whisper as a whisper, every note in every word.

The problem about greatness, about really great acting, is that in writing about it, you either have to deny your perceptions of the actor, or that actor’s humanity. I can tell you that Dench has amazing vocal technique; although the Wyndham’s acoustics are stunning, like all Delfont Mackintosh theatres (we were in the back row of the Circle and had perfect sight & sound – after visiting the Prince Edward and sitting way back in the stalls, I’m inclined to think you just don’t get a bad view in a Mackintosh theatre), Frances Barber shouts and Rosamund Pike has to heave to make herself heard. I can tell you that she moves beautifully, even on a cane, that her characterisation is believable and understated. I can relate my confusion that her character’s NOT Madame de Sade, but Madame de Montreuil, a baffling revelation since the whole play is of course clearly about her. But none of this will do, because what I want to tell you in big gold-black letters is that JUDI DENCH IS NO WOMAN BUT A GODDESS, except it’s no truer of Dench now, than it was of Siddons, as seen by Hazlitt.

But does it matter? Certainly, the passages where Tony Sher writes of his ‘red-gold sickness’ in encountering (and adoring) the work of Olivier are among the most embarassing in literature. Certainly even Harriet Walter gets a bit earnest and painful when she describes writing on acting as ‘writing on water’. Certainly a lot of now antiquated Victorian theatre criticism seems sentimental and florid. But it’s the only way, absolutely the only way – theatre writing must try to be experiential, because theatre is experiential, and because accounts of dramatic art have to make that art live in way that accounts of poetry or prose never have to do. Texts themselves will always be there, but after a production closes, even if there’s a script, the reviews are all that remains.

I would rather read one passionate (positive or negative) critical review of a play then ten dispassionately calm ones. I would rather write the same; but, crucially, even though there’s a certain angry satisfaction in telling the truth about a theatrical atrocity that’s robbed you of three hours of life, the best reviews in the world (for me, at least) are those where you come out of a theatre both inarticulate with LOVE  (convinced it was genius, convinced there were stars, convinced you’ve just had a LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE) and half-desperate with the desire to articulate it. I am not a good critic yet, because I can’t articulate the joy nearly as easily as the rage, and because my own studies in criticism and journalism have taught me to trust my enthusiasms far less than my mistrust. I think this is true of us as a culture, and certainly of an academic culture — as an undergraduate, the last thing you should ever say is ‘I like this, it’s good’ in an essay, and post-1980s theory especially (while very valuable) teaches us to ‘other’ the text, the performance, to pick apart its biases, to suspect ourselves of misinformation, to mistrust and subvert. And then suddenly, at M.St, the beloved tutor looks round at his twelve students, dumb in the face of some immortal literature and says, despairingly, “Well, do any of you LIKE it?”. And we go, “Oh. Yes. …does it matter?” and he despairs, and we enthuse, and we progress.

This is one of the things I love about graduate study; although I had a very free undergraduate experience in terms of what I studied, never before have I been given so much freedom to pursue my own interests (which is, of course, the point of a Masters degree). We all embrace our own interests more than previously, and I know I am more emotional now when discussing my work, or theatre, than I used to be. Correction: I’m more openly emotional. But then, I’m studying the period where Hazlitt called Siddons a goddess, when Wilde wrote poems for the roles Langtry played, when Terry (note: people should feel v free to buy me this) and Irving were goddess and god, and when Edward Gordon Craig could write of the latter as the last of the Immortals without anybody calling ‘daddy issues’! (note: I do tend to do this). It was an era when people did a lot more crying. Not that I’m suggesting we should weep over our research, although most Oxford grad students will find that at some point this comes naturally. I’m also more inclined to trust my emotional responses to theatre, having realised just how much I’ve seen. I made a list today. Excluding pantomimes, my own shows, and, um, things I saw before I was four (and also those dreadful Theatre-in-Education things school inflicted on me, because they are Just Wrong), I have seen 111 different stage productions: 28 Oxford student shows, 39 RSC, 33 non-RSC dramas or comedies and 23 musicals. Some of these productions I saw more than once. Divide that by the nearly-eighteen years since I was four, and that’s.. a lot of shows and rather a lot of money and goodness if my parents are reading this they’ll probably rethinking their mode of raising me. Or possibly NOT, since they’ve always held the very sensible attitude that life is too short not to go to the theatre, because going to the theatre is essentially better than anything else in the world. Except world peace, and first love, and a cure-all vaccine for cancer and AIDS. But after that.

Anyway, Judi Dench is superlative, and so is the rest of the cast, even Rosamund Pike. This is a very good thing, since Yuko Mishima’s script, as translated by Donald Keene, is… well. If you stop and think about it for too long, the dialogue is dreadful: the first few lines between Deborah Findlay and Frances Barber, in particular, are quite dangerously bad. You can generally forget this, given the beauty of acting and design – Dench enters as a coffee-cream Miss Havisham, bewiching and a little terrifying, while Frances Barber is just unbelievably sexy. Everybody gets through several dresses – Dench’s are the best, although Rosamund Pike’s last and Barber’s first are close competitors (later, she looks too much like a Disney princess to be quite believable) – and several wigs. Impressively for a stage show set 1780s France, only two of the wigs are very stupid – Frances Barber’s second (which nobody could have made me wear), and Pike’s first. This, an enormous blonde sphere of curls, has the unfortunate effect of making her look exactly like an idiotic china doll, a performance she definitely does not give. By comparison, I doubt the heap of hair she wears in the last act is her own, but it does at least look vaguely human. The sound is the best I’ve ever heard in a theatre, and even if some of the stage effects are a little too cinematic for my taste (SURPRISE BARBER is projected onto the back wall shortly before the finale), the overall effect is stunning – a grandeur to match the cast.

All the actors grew on me, although I was extremely prepared to be won over. It’s a testament to the quality of the performances that you do get some idea of the prior relationship between de Montreuil and her daughters, the free-spirited Anne and the saintly Renee (Pike), wife to the imprisoned Marquis de Sade. The Marquis, unfortunately, so dominates the script that everything about the de Montreuil women is conveyed without words, even though their relationship is far more interesting than the precise configurations in which the Marquis has been whipped by or whipping whom. I’m reminded of the Bechdel Test, which originated in a 1985 Dykes To Watch Out For comic strip called “The Rule“. This is a feminist movie-going concept in which a female character will only go and see a film if it fulfils three conditions —

1) It contains at least two women, who

2) talk to each other

3) about something besides a man.

….Madame de Sade, for most of its 105 minutes (I know, a cheek at the price, but it does feel like a full-length play), does not obey the third part of the rule. It’s true (I’m now wondering which Shakespeare plays do, and which do not. Richard II does, just. Much Ado does. AMND does, I think; LLL does, well, but not for long). But Pike is a revelation. Findlay is as good as she always is. Frances Barber is stunning, and Dame Judi Dench is the greatest actress of her generation and you should go to see her being goddess-like in the gold picture-frame of the Wyndham’s stage. I say this even having waved feminist objections around, because there are no men and six amazing women in this (occasionally shockingly hot) play on a West End stage and this may NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN. DENCH. BARBER. FINDLAY.

Side note. Oddity on leaving the theatre: black-and-white picture of Joe Orton, in all his bug-eyed glory, looking simultaneously sixteen and sixty while “watching rehearsals for Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Wyndham’s theatre, 1964″. That play in that cream confection of a theatre? Can’t decide if I like the thought or not.

Brief Love’s Labours Lost update: M. Omkar tells me he has nearly finished cutting the script. This makes me very slightly nervous. Suspect will have NO LINES left. We are to send in measurements soon. Slightly concerned. My bust, though not considerable, is presumably bigger than that of a twelve-year-old boy.

Love’s Labour’s Lost (I)

Yesterday was the first meeting, and partial readthrough, for the garden show in which I’m involved, next term! It’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, at Merton College, running from 23rd-27th June – and I’ve decided to blog the process. I’ve never publicly blogged a show before, so this is quite exciting. We’re fully cast and it looks as if it’s going to be an extremely exciting, collaborative process, in a seriously sexy setting. It’s great to be finally working with Krishna (the director) after years of enjoying each other’s work; originally, it looked as if I would be co-directing but the demands of my thesis next term make that more or less impossible (as I have to keep telling myself, sternly). I ran the first couple of days of auditions with him, then left him to it for recalls, so it was exciting to see who’s been cast. One very pleasant surprise was Ellen Buddle as the Princess of France; Ellen is one of my favourite people, my favourite actress to direct and just lovely. We are uniformly rubbish at meeting up so it’ll be good to be together so much at the end of next term. I’m playing Moth and thus will be opposite a guy called Ed White (Don Armado), an English postgrad whom I recognise from Faculty events. I also chatted to Michael Roy (who was quite nervous at audition) – French, teaching at St Hugh’s, and doing a DPhil in (get this) the early history of women’s colleges at Oxford. He seems absolutely lovely and I’m only sorry we won’t be onstage together much.

The setting will be Edwardian/pre-WW1 Oxford, with Elgar, academic lesbians (yes, Chlo, Virginia Woolf-esque women inna play), many many trees and general beauty & joy. Krishna definitely knows what he’s doing and I felt a stab of envy sitting there, looking round at this fabulous cast – I wish they were ours, not just his! But it’s wonderful to be acting again and I’m sure by next term, etc. We did some warm-ups (Joe! who works in a button factory! — this made me really miss Titas), then went and had a look at the space in the fading light. It was cold, and a bit damp (Ellen’s heels kept squelching into the mud), but already prettier than when I’d seen it last – the daffodils are out. Krishna did a lot of gesticulating and explaining that THAT THREE THERE WILL BE GREEN and also plotting the demise of one ‘piddly little thing’ (a shrub, not a cast member) spoiling the veiw. The problem with Merton is that it’s too pretty – there are too many ways we could plot the space. We had a chat about costumes, as well, specifically the issue of corseting for the girls – Ellen and I both think instinctively it’s a bad idea (though one which wouldn’t apply to me, hurrah, although possibly a breast binder will ohgod) given a) the relative inexperience of two or three of our lovely girls, which would make chest breathing more difficult, more likely and less desirable, and b) the inherent problems of projection once you get into a garden space.

Omkar informs us we already have print. The man is a machine. I think it’ll be a very happy company; most people seem to already know one or two people, which helps things gel, but since we’re still mostly strangers to each other, there’s no danger of cliques. There won’t be another meeting until next term, but I wanted to get the blog up and running before then.

LOVE’S LABOURS LOST | by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | 23-37 June 2009 | 9th week, Merton College, Oxford | dir. Krishna Omkar | THE COMPANY : Phil Aherne, Ellen Buddle, Robert Dacre, Sophie Duncan, Kate Lewin, Eleanor Lischka, Sam Losey, James Lowe, Charlotte Mulliner, Krishna Omkar, Emily Roessler, Sam Roots, Michael Roy, Geraldo Silva Neto, Rebecca Tay, Edmund White.