Durham Drama Festival: site specific night review

By Max Lindon

The Bocchae: A Post-truth Tragicomedy in Three Parts 

The Bocchae presented a bold and intriguing prospect, a reimagining of Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae set amidst the 2016 EU Referendum campaign, but unfortunately it failed to truly deliver on its potential. In practice, the weaving together of two plots, that of the original Greek drama and the actual events of last year’s referendum, proved to be highly confusing, especially for audience members such as myself who were unfamiliar with Euripides’ play. There were notable inconsistencies with real life events, for example Theresa May was portrayed as the one who toppled David Cameron, and Michael Gove’s sensational betrayal of Boris Johnson was omitted altogether, which undermined any satirical impact that the play might have had. There was an oft-repeated aphorism that “politics is theatre”, but I didn’t feel the play had anything new and interesting to say about the referendum campaign or British politics in general.

The Bocchae employed masks in the style of Greek theatre to differentiate between characters, and I wish they had taken this device a bit further. The masks half covered the characters faces, severely limiting the range of expression they could convey. However, because the masks only covered the upper half of each character’s head, the actors didn’t really look like the politicians they were portraying. If full-face masks had been employed, they would have forced the actors to eschew facial expressions all together in favour of heightened movement and physicality. This would have brought the dynamism that the play was otherwise lacking in, whilst also resembling Ancient Greek theatre more closely.

The actors’ performances also could’ve benefitted from bolder direction. Whilst Shona Graham gave a serviceable impersonation of Boris Johnson, and Kyle Kirkpatrick was a standout as Owen Jones, it was unclear whether the other actors were meant to be doing impressions or not. Jake Hathaway and Jessie Smith didn’t change their voice when they switched from Michael Gove to George Osborne, or from David Cameron to Theresa May respectively. The “British Public” (consisting of Florence Petrie, Lizzie Strahan and William Wood) gave highly naturalistic performances, which I found to be a bizarre perversion of the traditional role of the chorus in Greek theatre. The chorus should be energetically carrying the audience through the story, rather than indifferently commenting on it now and again. Although space was limited, I would’ve liked to see them on stage during other characters’ scenes, as we would have been able to see the reactions of the British Public in time with the events that unfolded. This would have also neatly reinforced the idea of “politics is theatre”, that was meant to be conveyed. Generally, the cast didn’t seem to be entirely comfortable with what they had been asked to do, and this inhibited the energy and conviction of their performances.

I will reiterate that The Bocchae’s concept was an interesting one, but it lacked the innovative and well-executed creative vision it needed to really deliver on its tragicomic potential.


Daisy’s Dead

Daisy’s Dead places us in familiar crime film territory, the robbery gone wrong. Jack (Zac Tiplady) has just been stabbed in the leg by his accomplices and is left behind with the man they’ve just robbed, Ben (Hamish Lloyd-Barnes). Ben is suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome and his unconventional response to his predicament begins to threaten Jack’s sanity. As writer Alice Clarke explained in her Director’s Note, Daisy’s Dead is very much an homage to the work of writer-directors like Quentin Tarantino, with its quick-fire, bickering dialogue, and cheery pop music contrasting with the persistent threat of violence between characters. However, I don’t think Clarke quite managed to put her own spin on this style, meaning that the script often descended into cliché. Prior to the entrance of Adam Evans as Drew, the action seemed highly formulaic. A pattern quickly emerged, where Jack would threaten to kill Ben, then lose his nerve, then one of them would tell a tangential, character developing anecdote, and then repeat.

Drew’s entrance gave a much-needed change of dynamic to the third act, but the ending was ultimately unsatisfactory. I suspect that some lines may have been dropped as the final confrontation between Drew and Jack escalated confusingly quickly. As anyone familiar with the tropes of modern crime films could have predicted, a gun was produced at the denouement and the play ultimately ended with Drew and Jack struggling over it. Ambiguity was clearly the aim of the ending but it ultimately fell flat; offering no form of resolution to the play, or to the moral arc that had been developed for Jack. Perhaps hearing a gunshot at the end (rather than a strange screeching sound) would’ve given some sense of finality, whilst still allowing the audience to guess as to the precise outcome.

The cast showed impressive commitment to their performances, but a common problem was a lack of variation in tone. This meant that the play seemed very much one-note rather than developing a sense of building tension. This was most evident in Hamish Lloyd-Barnes’s performance, with his autistic tics and repetitive delivery soon becoming rather grating. I found the character of Ben to be rather problematic, as he incorporated all of the stereotypes that have come to be associated with autistic people in popular culture. Dialogue such as “I don’t know how people feel” was far too on the nose, and clichés such as being nerdy and having an unusual proficiency for mathematics felt rather tired. Zac Tiplady as Jack showed impressive physicality, maintaining the agony of his stab wound throughout the play. He did a good job of conveying his character’s highly convoluted arc. Adam Evans injected energy into the play with his arrival as Drew, but as with Tiplady, I wish he had either completely gone for his London-ish accent or not.

Overall, Daisy’s Dead featured some spirited performances, but ultimately didn’t really pull off the admittedly incredibly difficult style that it was aiming for.


A Year of Minutes

A Year of Minutes is one of those rare plays that leaves you on a euphoric high as you exit the theatre. I was not entirely sure what I had just witnessed, but I knew for sure that it was absolutely brilliant. How on earth did a play that is literally just a live reading of the minutes from a residents committee meeting manage to be this transcendentally hilarious? It truly is a play of contradictions. Its comedy is bombastically absurdist, yet at the same time incredibly subtle, with tiny changes in tone or expression from the inspired comic double act of Rory (Kieran Laurie) and Colin (Andrew Cowburn) producing paroxysms of laughter from the audience. It is static in a way that breaks all traditional theatre conventions, with the characters just sitting in a line for virtually the entire show, and yet it is also in comic perpetual motion. Every cast member was constantly reacting to one another, and I often found myself cracking up at completely random moments upon seeing them.

However, the most startling contradiction is how a play that is so patently ridiculous gets you to take it so seriously. A Year of Minutes captures the political zeitgeist in a way that is deeply unsettling and moving. Particularly affecting was Barnabas Mercer’s faltering delivery as Gethin as he read out the results of the AGM that had swept the forces of intolerance to power  recalling our own reactions to real-life political events in the not so distant past. Even though the French immigrants who were being persecuted were the most outrageous, beret-wearing, wine-swilling stereotypes you could imagine, the distraught looks on their faces as they realised they were no longer welcome in their new community was absolutely heart-breaking.

Whilst a great deal of credit must go to the comedic genius of writer/director Hamish Clayton and his co-director Sam Rietbergen, this sort of piece could not have been pulled off without a tremendous ensemble effort. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of the humour has been developed through the rehearsal process, and each actor has really made their character their own. It seems unfair to highlight individuals but the aforementioned Mercer was excellent as the mild-mannered chairman Gethin, and I’m not sure I’ll ever hear the acronym R.O.N. the same way again. Erin Welch was also fantastic as the committee secretary Caroline, with her dry, often passive-aggressive delivery making her role as narrator highly entertaining. And then, of course, we come to Rory and Colin, who I could watch for hours on end. Kieran Laurie showed practically stoic levels of discipline to not corpse, and maintained his deadpan delivery throughout their hilarious encounters.

I completely understand that A Year of Minutes may not be for everyone. Its off the wall comedy could be seen as somewhat niche, whilst if you like your bananas un-straightened you may find its political message to be the intolerable mewlings of special snowflake university liberals. But I for one cannot remember laughing so hard at anything, whilst at the same time being thoroughly compelled by its message.


Photograph: Durham Drama Festival via Facebook

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