The students rehearse (and laugh!) like tireless horses – that strikes one like Rocinante, Don Quixote’s clumsy horse. They are rehearsing for Richard B. Sheridan’s comedy of manners: The Rivals. An ancient play, no doubt (first performed in 1775) – but funny! Undeniably, the play is a velvet goldmine of farce, wit and eccentric extravagance, a vision director Niamh Kelliher and assistant director Ollie Cochran intend to crank up absurdly.
A few words on the play itself for those who have not heard of it. It is a comedy that follows a young woman, Lydia Languish, who wishes to marry someone poor (an admittedly strange ideal of romance she has). Jack Absolute, who is not poor, therefore pretends to be a poor soldier so that she may love him. This complicates things. And the play sets off from there, starring eccentrics, rivalries, lovers, and utter chaos.
For this DUCT performance, a troupe of enthusiastic and skilled actors will let loose and step into a farcical and ostentatious world of entirely silly people in ridiculous situations – nothing short of a pomp affair.
I sat down with some of the cast during one of their rehearsals. We sat on the floor, sort of grounding the giddy atmosphere of the rehearsal. George zu Weid, who plays Sir Anthony Absolute (father of Jack Absolute), lamented the atmosphere inside the rehearsal room as “straight up silliness,” reflecting on the eccentric and light-hearted performances. George Gibbs, who plays David and Thomas, goes further. He says that it is a very “high energy setting,” which he admitted meant that one had to be in the mindset for. Luckily, he said that the cast creates a very warm and cheerful environment: “Everyone has to be high energy all the time for the play to work.”
For Florence Booth, who plays the fickle (and bratty!) Lydia Languish, having to embody such an eccentric and lively character says it is an enjoyable change from her usual preference for naturalistic acting. Having much experience with acting, for example acting in the Edinburgh Fringe, playing an over-the-top character, that she describes to be almost pantomime-esque, is for her a useful way to “know how far you can take a character, how extreme one’s acting can get.” Although the play is a comedy, the characters are still very deep, despite their seemingly overbearing farcical nature, who carry very profound themes of love, the role of women, pretension, and artifice – all wrapped up in a good laugh.
Alannah O’Hare, who plays Mrs Malaprop and recently played Amanda Wingfield in Fourth Wall’s rendition of T. Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, also shares that because of this play’s silliness, it is “a nice way to meet new people and get started on something new.” It is clear that student theatre has this amazing ability for students to be thrown together with people who share similar passions and create something wonderful out of this. Lucinda Turner, who plays Julia Melville, echoes this sentiment, as she speaks about what Durham student theatre means for her. “It’s amazing that Durham can offer a way into worlds that you love,” she says, “I study Economics and Spanish, so for me this is my way of expressing my passion.”
Student theatre is an excellent “vessel to meet new people from older years,” says assistant director Ollie Cochran, who previously directed the DST Fresher’s Play: A Murder is Announced. He reflects on how it is to direct; “when you direct your skills as an actor come up as well,” he says. Knowing how to block a scene or how to accurately communicate to actors is a challenge many directors face. For Niamh Kelliher (seasoned director of student plays) her background as a dancer is specifically helpful when it comes to her approach to blocking a scene, “It’s about getting on the same page with the material,” she says.
Alongside the comedic acting, the aesthetic of the play is also worth getting excited about. The entire creative and production team (producer: Julia Kennerley, assistant producer: Himasali Jayaratne, production manager: Aaron Lo, creative assistant: Abby Greenhalgh) plan to build a three-tiered stage to represent the different locations of the play. As well, period-accurate music and costumes (opulent of course) will be used.
The remaining cast includes Tom Corcoran as Jack Absolute, James Porter as Mr. Faulkland, Lucinda Turner as Julia Melville, Thea Steadman Jones as Mr. Acres, Bethan Avery as Sir Lucius O’Trigger, Emilia Lewis as Lucy, and finally Samuel Bentley as Mr. Fag.
The DUCT’s performance of The Rivals can be seen at the Assembly Rooms Theatre on 30th November and 1st and 2nd December.