first night

Durham Drama Festival 2017: Site Specific Night

Carrie Gaunt kicks off reviewing for DST's biggest theatrical event of the year.

The Bocchae

The past year in politics has been something of an annus horribilis, and whilst the Greeks dealt with social issues by writing relentlessly bloody and grim plays about them, the British response has, historically, been ridicule and irony. Alison Middleton's The Bocchae combines both, using Euripedes' The Bacchae to narrate Brexit with a healthy dose of biting satire. It's an intelligent idea but I'm not sure it completely works, and the resulting production feels confused and flimsy in its intentions and narrative.

The main issue with The Bocchae lies in its framing device. Its riffs on The Bacchae are only really enjoyable if the audience understands the source material, and such a detailed prior knowledge is unlikely across the board. I think Middleton is aware of this, hence a rather awkward exchange where Boris Johnson refers to David Cameron as 'Pentheus... urm I mean David', but the overall effect is bizarre and clunky, with the parallels too subtle and too under-communicated to be effective. Fundamentally, I'm not sure whether the parallels between The Bacchae and the past year in British politics were ever concrete enough to warrant being subsumed into one another in the first place, and so an unwitting observer could be forgiven for completely missing the subtext.

The cast have done an excellent job in capturing the tics and mannerisms of their respective political figures. Director Jonathan Packham and assistant director Anna Haines have clearly worked hard to tease out and emphasise the obvious targets for caricature. However, I did feel that, generally speaking, performances were not quite larger-than-life enough to give this production the sense of parody and satire that I feel it needed. Particularly with the added issue of the character masks (although beautifully made by mask creative Polly Mackintosh) covering a lot of facial expression, I felt that characterisation really needed to be ramped up a notch in order to really communicate the comedy to the audience. There were hints at a more self-aware, stylised interpretation of the material, which I would love to have seen pushed further, but in general I felt that some of the outwardly comedic sections just got submerged. However, I am perhaps being unfair here—a last minute venue change and relocation to The Assembly Rooms Theatre may have meant that the cast were not entirely comfortable with their space and how to work within it, which might explain what I felt was a slight lack of attack and energy. Furthermore, there are some excellent performances: I felt that Jake Hathaway's Michael Gove was the strongest of the ensemble, enjoyably ridiculous and with a lovely attention-to-detail in characterisation. Shona Graham also has some very funny moments as Boris Johnson and manages to capture the mischief inherent in Boris' alter-ego Dionysis.

Ultimately, I feel that The Bocchae is a good concept but it wasn’t executed smoothly or consistently enough in its writing to reach its potential. The resulting production, although well performed, felt clumsy and disjointed—not quite a parody of a Greek tragedy, or a satire of current politics, but uneasily straddling the two. 

Daisy's Dead

Daisy's Dead, written and co-directed by Alice Clarke (alongside Qasim Salam), is a homage to the blackly comic violence of Tarantino et al, with twist. Jack has burgled Ben's house and taken Ben hostage, but Ben has Asperger’s Syndrome and Jack is seriously injured. The resulting piece was something of a mixed bag and slightly rough around the edges: generally it was extremely funny and well acted but with elements in the writing and staging that needed tightening and refining.

The main issues with Daisy's Dead are twofold. The first is that the writing occasionally threatens to become repetitive and, because of this, loses gravitas. The initial grappling between Ben and Jack is extrapolated beyond what it can actually bring to the table, dramatically speaking, and the effect is that we, as an audience, feel like we're going round in circles with little change in emotional stakes. As a result, the more emotional moments perhaps lost some of their potency. They felt glossed over and not afforded as much exposition as their more mundane counterparts. The second issue was that the material, already objectively high-ocatane, is performed at with such intensity from the outset that the actors leave themselves only a little room to grow. I felt that there wasn't enough light and shade in the performance, and I would like to have seen more modulation and nuance in the pacing and tone to ramp up the tension, but also to give the more human moments some breathing space. Nevertheless, Clarke clearly has talent and a good understanding of the fundaments of black comedy: the dialogue flowed nicely and easily twisted the absurdity of the situation into humour.

All three actors are exceptionally talented, and whilst I do think that all of them can afford to give more variation in their characterisation, they all showed moments of excellence. Adam Evans' trademark black, snappy comedy was perfectly suited to Drew. Whilst I feel that he could possibly have teased out the paternal side to Drew slightly more, Evans has fabulous comic timing and his more grounded, meditative characterisation provided a good contrast to the consistently fast-paced first half, and to Zac Tiplady's nervy Jack. Tiplady's energetic performance did sometimes threaten to overshadow his quieter moments, but his wrestling with his conscience was consistently exciting to watch. Hamish Lloyd Barnes had potentially the most difficult task as Ben, a young boy with Aspergers, and whilst there were some moments where I felt like Lloyd Barnes pitched Ben's almost childlike demeanor just right, occasionally I felt like the truth of his characterisation was being lost as the temptation to play out the comedy in his lines took over. This was a shame, as I genuinely think some of Ben's lines would have been funnier without any self-awareness—an innocence which also would have worked wonders in placing the audience's sympathy firmly with Ben, and understanding why he unwittingly becomes such a charismatic influence on Jack.

Daisy's Dead ultimately has a lot of potential, and I feel that with more lightness and subtlety, it will better strike the balance between tense and hilarious—at the moment the latter is perhaps overshadowing the former.

A Year of Minutes

The final offering of the night was A Year of Minutes, written and co-directed by Hamish Clayton, following the Kristofferson Residences Committee at their quarterly meetings as they attempt to maintain a spirit of community through a series of ostensibly prosaic mini life dramas. Largely narrated in the form of, as the title suggests, minutes from said meetings, I was concerned that A Year of Minutes would be static and repetitive, but I could not have been more wrong. On the contrary, I think it was the strongest offering of the night. Both hilarious and heart-warming, A Year of Minutes is very silly, very funny and executed to perfection.

Clayton writes formidably for ensemble casts and A Year of Minutes is no exception. This is a play that rests on the strength of the cast chemistry and Clayton, alongside co-director Sam Rietbergen, has clearly worked exceptionally hard on fine-tuning both group dynamics and individual characterisation. The cast are all tremendously exposed but what is wonderful about this is that every single actor has worked with this opportunity to flesh out their character, meaning that whilst some cast members had less time in the spotlight than others, nobody really fell by the wayside. Vignettes were played out silently everywhere, adding extra nuances to the onstage relationships that couldn’t be communicated through the largely narrative overarching structure.

Whilst I do feel that the ensemble are uniformally strong, there are some stand-out performances, chiefly those of Andrew Cowburn and Kieran Laurie. Both are absolutely natural comedians, with flawless timing and consistency, and their puzzlement and awkwardness created a lovely contrast to the more raucous action. I'm still not sure quite how Laurie managed to make me howl with laughter just by saying his name, but suffice to say that both had me laughing snortily from beginning to end, and I genuinely looked forward to their interactions throughout. I suspect that the self-consciously awkward staging and tone of their conversations may not be to everyone's taste. It is perhaps a more polarising style of comedy writing than elsewhere in the piece, but I enjoyed this risk-taking, and particularly that Clayton embraced the oddness full-throttle. Erin Welch, as secretary Caroline, also gave a formidable performance, enjoyably vacant but, crucially, with enough modulation to give her some real moments of hilarity. Jazzy Price and Josh Williams, as the Laportes, worked fabulously together, completely embracing the slightly farcical nature of their characters and, despite having relatively few lines, made all of them hilarious.

Perhaps surprisingly, the really lovely thing about A Year of Minutes is not so much that it is so relentlessly funny, but that it ultimately, and with a lightness of touch that makes the shift in tone almost imperceptible, manages to be very sweet, touching and even moving. Credit must go both to Clayton's writing and to the dexterity of the ensemble for managing to shock the room into silence when they had been roaring with laughter just a few minutes prior. A piece such as A Year of Minutes could threaten to become a parade of stock characters with little or no depth beyond the comic facade, but Clayton never lets these characters exist purely as devices. The result is that by the final meeting our investment in the ensemble, and the narrative, is complete.

With three shows entered into the festival three years running, Clayton's pedigree as a writer is undisputed and A Year of Minutes showcases his trademark skill in writing comedy with heart. Performed brilliantly, it was a tremendously enjoyable way to round up site-specific night.

10 February 2017

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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