Oedipus Rex: Reviewed

Graphics: Britton Struthers

When I first heard of the opportunity to review Mermaids’ recent production of Oedipus Rex, I jumped at the chance. We had just read the iconic Greek tragedy in second-year English, so this modernization seemed, given the circumstances, too good to miss. What I found was a spiralized, dystopian rendering of the play, one whose bleak, monochromatic set and multimedia approach played out like a Black Mirror episode in the flesh.

This production, written and directed by Gabriele Uboldi and produced by Chloe Ashley, was nothing if not complex. Even as someone familiar with the plot, there were parts of it I found difficult to follow. Uboldi’s fresh approach to the tragedy was constructed as a sort of descent into madness, but often that madness obscured points of plot. The script, however, was very well-written, particularly the monologues given to a number of characters. Additionally, the technical elements – voiceovers, videography by Finn Antrobus, original music by Annabel Steele, live DJ-ing by Zoe Ruki, and much more – all felt well-incorporated, a difficult achievement when so many things are fighting for the audience’s attention.

One aspect that felt a little flat to me was the choreography, which was well-staged by Sarah Julia Greenberg but not always well-executed. There was a disparity in ability across the cast that revealed itself in the larger group numbers, to the point that it distracted from the seriousness of the content. Perhaps it could have been left out altogether in order for the play to retain a more ruminative note.

On the other hand, many of the production’s gambles paid off. The inventive element of multiple Oedipus’s (Isabelle Cory, Charles Vivian, Miriam Woods, Martin Caforio) really demonstrated the breadth of these actors’ abilities, as they moved in and out of this demanding role fluidly and without breaking tempo. But perhaps my favorite aspect of Uboldi’s rewrite was the way in which he handled Jocasta (Martina Sardelli). Deepened far beyond Sophocles’ original conception of her, Jocasta featured nearly as prominently as Oedipus – and rightly so, as only she suffers on the level Oedipus does. Sardelli’s performance strengthened that multifaceted depth, as she flaunted and raged even while subtly revealing a profound vulnerability in her character.

Overall, Uboldi has constructed a story that interweaves seamlessly through and upon itself, so full of careful details and structured levels that I almost feel like I need to see it again to truly comprehend and appreciate it. It is a testament to Western civilization that I can sit in a local theater in a small seaside town in Scotland and watch my fellow students reinterpret a tragic story of human feeling that has endured for thousands of years and is still able to captivate modern audiences. Certainly we have come a long way since Sophocles’ time, but at our emotional core and in our personal and political relationships to each other, we have, Oedipus Rex reveals, remained the same.

4/5 Owlies

A Doll’s House: Reviewed

I was hugely excited to have the chance to see this production of ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen, as I have vivid memories of reading this play when I was fourteen in a National 5 English class (the Scottish GCSE equivalent, for anyone who is unfamiliar), and finding it a refreshing change to the never-ending deluge of Shakespeare that had been shoved down our throats up until that point. In all seriousness though, I remember being struck by the play’s powerful message of female empowerment that was ahead of its time, given that it was published in the late nineteenth century. 

The crux of the plot revolves around Nora Helmer’s realisation that she has been controlled her entire life, first by her father and then by her husband, Torvald. In order to pay for a trip to Italy to save her sick husband’s life, Nora borrowed money from Krogstad, a man of ill-repute, after forging her father’s signature. Initially, Nora is not troubled by her dishonesty; she and her husband are comfortable financially, and she is content with her role as an attentive housewife. But when Torvald becomes aware of her fraud, she is forced to re-evaluate her marriage. 

Given that the majority of the action is situated in the Helmers’ living room, the small and intimate setting of the Barron was perfect for this production. Director Charles Vivian and producer Alice Rickless did a great job in casting, as every actor shone in their role, and costumer Alex Rive excelled at dressing the cast in period outfits. With stripped-back tech and a fixed set throughout, the onus was really on the actors to deliver the show. They achieved that with flying colours. 

Fiona McNevin’s Nora was impressive. She fulfilled the difficult task of portraying Nora’s multifarious character traits: simple-minded and content with the boundaries society has imposed on her at the beginning, emotional and overwhelmed by her predicament during the bulk of the play, and resolute in her decision to walk out of the family home by the end. Sam Gray was superlative as Torvald; he exuded self-righteousness and arrogance throughout, and both he and McNevin had marvelous on-stage intensity which came to the fore during their high-octane exchanges in the closing scenes. Fran Ash was similarly exemplary as Nora’s compassionate yet level-headed confidant, Mrs Linde; Issy Cory was suitably attentive and caring as the maid Anne-Marie; and Liam Smith captured the menacing nature of Krogstad. Sebastian Durfee’s energy and enthusiasm as Dr. Rank provided a nice contrast to the heavier, more serious scenes, and McNevin’s panicked facial expressions while dancing the Tarantella made me and many other audience members chuckle. Another highlight was the door slam sound effect that punctuated Nora’s exit at the end as it heightened the drama in a way that I very much appreciated. On the whole, it should be said that the performance was seamless. Opening night nerves? Not a chance. 

As a reviewer, one often feels that one’s duty is to find some fault with the show, even if it is minuscule, but I genuinely cannot pinpoint any one thing that stood out as a detractor from the overall performance. Perhaps you could say the interpretation of the text was somewhat predictable – there was nothing totally unexpected, no unusual twists or reinventions. But that’s what made it so enjoyable. It would have been unnecessary to tweak this classic text; the real challenge was to execute the script’s nuances and make the characters and their relationships feel natural. The magic of this play is that Nora’s struggle is still as relatable as ever, and Vivian’s directorial vision emphasised this central concern excellently. The cast and crew should be immensely proud of their efforts – it was Mermaids’ last show of the decade, and they could not have gone out on more of a high! 

Five Owlies

Snore: Reviewed

Max Posner’s Snore is a 2011 play that focuses on a group of close-knit friends whose relationships fracture as they begin to face the travails of adult life. The play itself is full of comically absurd moments, eliciting laughs whenever the backstage team wheeled on a cumbersome toilet that provides a comic backdrop for emotional duologues between various couples. It’s best quality is Posner’s ability to mix the mundane with the profound and sometimes tragic, and Director Martin Caforio shows a keen understanding of the tone and style of his chosen subject matter.

Another strength of the production is the performances, which all combine youthful energy with a contemplative maturity befitting this transitionary period in the lives of the characters. Martina Sardinelli and Jack Detwiler as Nina and Tom give the show its emotional anchor. I found their relationship immediately believable and lived-in, yet unfortunately was disappointed as their relationship proceeded to break down and they shared less and less time on stage. While this may be the fault of the script, I felt as if there was not nearly enough explanation given to Tom’s lengthy absences (a case he’s working on is repeatedly brought up but is not given enough time to be properly fleshed out, jostling for attention with half a dozen inconsequential subplots).

Morgan Corby impresses in his first scene as Abe, an excitable ball of charisma and neuroses who conceals an aching insecurity that is revealed as the story progresses. However, just as with Nina and Tom I felt his character soon loses his way, becoming a rambling and often nonsensical component of an increasingly difficult-to-follow plot. Alongside these enthusiastic performances are gleeful cameos from Grace Thorner and George Watts as oddballs who, again, despite their noble efforts, do not seem to fit naturally into the script past their initial scene. Ella Dao as Ally was often too quiet and hesitant for her supposedly feisty character, though she certainly gained confidence as the play progressed.

As mentioned above, the script is sporadic and often neglects to conclude (or even initiate) arcs for certain characters. I couldn’t tell while watching the show whether the producers had decided to cut the script down so it would be more digestible, but I found a number of gaps in the plot and character development that left me feeling cold by play’s end.

Set is minimal, which creates a cosy, domestic atmosphere, but also begs the question of why scene transitions take so long. Every time a scene changes the audience is forced to sit through a few minutes of ambient music and stage dressers haphazardly pulling off coats, chairs or toilets. While the attempt is impressive, one feels it could be more efficient. This also sometimes bleeds through into line delivery; while some scenes crackle with the chemistry of the cast, far too many have lengthy silences and moments of obvious hesitation.

Overall, although the final product could be more polished and focussed, this is an ambitious and worthy effort for a first time production team. I look forward to what’s coming next from Lost Boot Productions … 

3/5 Owlies

Reviewed: The Children’s Hour

When it comes to Peachy Keen Productions, I’ve learned to set my expectations high and wide open. The drive of this company is not toward reproducing what has worked for them in the past, but toward exploring and inventing something new. The Children’s Hour, directed by Rowan Wishart and produced by Anenti Winter, is no exception.

Lillian Hellman wrote the play in 1934, but this production feels fresh and contemporary with musical interludes by Kat Reynders and Anenti Winter, a brightly painted pop-up book of backdrops (à la The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil), and some remarkable performances.

Karin Sophia Johansson and Georgia Luckhurst lead the pack as Martha and Karen, two schoolteachers whose lives are ruined by accusations of a lesbian affair. The subtlety of this friendship between two women exhausted by the competing demands of rowdy children, a delusional aunt (Molly Williams), and a relentlessly cheerful fiancé (Connor Norris) holds everything else in place—at least until Sophia Kiely takes the stage. Kiely is almost too convincing as Mary Tilford, the manipulate child tyrant who starts the rumor about Martha and Karen. Anyone who has ever dealt with an impossible (would I go too far to say “evil”?) brat will shudder at Kiely’s wheedling, whinging, and chilling shifts of expression.

While these three are locked in opposition, the rest of the cast is working just as hard: standouts include Gabrielle Green as the ill-used Rosalie, Molly Williams as faded actress Mrs. Mortar, and Heather Tiernan and her tartan skirt as the formidable and inexplicably Scottish (no complaints) Agatha. 

Visually, the production is a mixed bag. Kat Reynders’s ‘60s costumes are the standout; the cohesive ensemble of jewel tones and carefully coordinated textures create a powerful sense of the world of this story—a world so detailed and specific it extends even to the beautiful paper-doll publicity illustrations by Sasha Man.

The set, unfortunately, has less of an eye for detail. The cardboard pop-up book is extremely ambitious and, at its best, magical. It is also bulky and prone to malfunction, which detracts from the effect. More importantly, though, it seems to belong on a different stage from the ordinary furniture in the foreground, and fails to feel like an extension of the space occupied by the characters. 

I also have to say that, while this script is excellent, its queer aspects are slightly unsettling to me. Doubtless The Children’s Hour was groundbreaking in 1934, but today I have my doubts about a play in which the only queer character takes her life after being snubbed by her friend, and the people who spread the rumor about the lesbian affair have to apologize, not for being vicious or prejudiced, but merely for being incorrect. Still, there is something to be said for preserving these moments in the history of queer culture and thinking about how they translate into new contexts—and there is even more to be said for a play in St. Andrews with twelve female roles, real period costumes, and creative decisions which are strong, if not always slick.

3/5