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 Gabrielle 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

Preview: Oedipus Rex at the Byre Theatre

Graphics: Britton Struthers

“Daddy Issues” was the name given to one of an array of signature cocktails featured at the Oedipus Rex launch party last Wednesday night in Beacon Bar. A gusty combination of gin, cherry liqueur, and vodka, the concoction’s color echoed the vivid pinks and purples of the upcoming production’s posters, which in the past few weeks have been visibly plastered all over town.

This version of Oedipus Rex, set to take the stage at the Byre Theatre this week, is the brainchild of seasoned writer and director Gabriele Uboldi, whose work has graced the St Andrews stage a number of times in his illustrious career with Mermaids. He plans to take an entirely new production to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer before embarking on what is looking to be a promising career in playwriting and directing. Uboldi himself calls his adaptation of Oedipus a culmination of all he has learned and been working towards in his time at St Andrews, both in its technical challenges and in what he has garnered from the student theatre community here. The play certainly promises technical ambition, incorporating a polished array of elements including original videography, projections, choreography, and live DJing, some of which have been featured in Uboldi’s past work.

So, why Oedipus Rex? In the thousands of years since its first conception by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex has so captured the fascination of Western culture, even outside the world of the theatre, that it continues to be performed today. The troubling issues it poses have endured so far as to become integrated into our modern vocabulary, and a contemporary understanding of the play remains a powerful undercurrent in our approaches to the human psyche, most notably within Freudian theory. For Uboldi, Oedipus Rex represents a whole realm of still-relevant themes relating to storytelling and how we as human beings read ourselves in the narratives occurring around and through us. This play raises the question of how to react when you know the odds are already stacked against you, a question that in our current world of chaotic political and environmental turmoil is still each day begging to be answered.

In attending the launch party and in sitting down with Uboldi this week, I personally have felt a sense of convivial dynamism, not only from individuals such as Uboldi, but from the entire Oedipus team. It’s clear that this animated, close-knit collective is incredibly passionate about what it does. That passion promises to take the stage this week in an unmissable exploration of fate, the stories we are written into, and how we choose to tell them.

Oedipus Rex goes up in the Byre Theatre this Tuesday and Wednesday, 11-12 February, 7:30pm. Tickets are available on the Byre website:

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

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

Copenhagen: Reviewed

All the interval, all I could think was: oh boy. How am I going to talk about this thing?

It’s difficult to know where to start with this magical production of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, directed by Benji Osugo and produced by Lauren Liotti. It resists the usual standards and categories for theater. Copenhagen takes the form of a conversation between German physicist Werner Heisenberg, Danish physicist Neils Bohr, and Magrethe, Bohr’s wife. The three meet after the end of their lives to discuss their relationships, their careers, their responsibility (or lack thereof) for the creation of the atomic bomb, and the purpose behind a mysterious visit Heisenberg made to Copenhagen in 1941.

At the heart of this production were three powerhouse performers: Georgie Turner as Heisenberg, Anoushka Kohli as Bohr, and Georgia Luckhurst as Magrethe. Together they navigated the text—a beautiful but challenging combination of storytelling, repetitive dialogue, and science metaphors—with true elegance. Turner, a consummate character actress, was magnetic: electric with idiosyncrasy and charm. Kohli matched this energy with the steadier, quieter, but equally vivid counterpoint of an older man who has suffered oppression and loss. Luckhurst was at her best in the second act, when Magrethe begins to match intellects with the men. She struck the perfect note of smart sharpness to interrupt the play’s repetitions. 

It’s a good thing the performances were strong, because they could not have been more exposed. The actors stood in the middle of a perfect circle with the sparsest of sets: a bare lightbulb, a square of white industrial flooring, and three white chairs. Visually, it was a masterclass in careful selection. Caelan Mitchell-Bennett, Viola Komedová, and Zoë du Bois conceived of a set which did so much with so little. The whitewash had an eerie, afterlife glow, apt for three deceased characters. But it was also a blank canvas which the actors could imagine into anything and anyplace they needed as they told their stories. The paint on the flooring chipped underfoot, creating flakes that drifted in the light—like the snow in Heisenberg’s favorite skiing metaphor or, more disturbingly, like the ash of an obliterated city. The technical and sound design, headed by Natasha Maurer, was just as precise. Piano music and colored, horizontal light gave variety and signaled shifts in place, time, and mood. 

The drawback to this level of precision is that any superfluous element feels glaringly out of place. The mirrors around the edge of the audience, for instance, promised exciting visual effects but served no discernible purpose. The costumes felt like an afterthought, disconnected from the rest of the storytelling. These were the scant flaws I picked out in the occasional moments when Bohr and Heisenberg spiraled into their umpteenth disagreement about who said what and when and where and how and to whom, and I wondered why it mattered, and whether the play might be just a tiny bit too long. 

I had one other question, and it was a question for the director. Throughout the play, the three actors whirled around the circular space, sometimes in choreographed movement sequences, sometimes carrying their chairs. Why so much spinning, I wondered about halfway through—and why that lightbulb in the center? Only on my way out did I realize how beautiful and perfect this was for a play about the structure of the atom. 

4/5

One Man, Two Guvnors: Reviewed

To call Mermaid’s production of Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guv’nors a rip-roaring success would perhaps be the understatement of the theatrical year (even though its only getting started). The show that Isobel Sinclair and her talented cast have assembled is a cacophonous delight that roars along its hefty three-hour runtime with such enthusiasm that you’ll barely notice the minutes whipping by. Bolstered by a witty and occasionally very blue script, replete with pratfalls, topical humour and hysterical sound cues, there really is no aspect of this production that can be anything but applauded. 

It opens in a thoroughly cockneyfied 1960’s Brighton, with the usual setup of a classical farce (Bean’s play being adapted from the 18th Century Italian play A Servant of Two Masters): a young couple who are supposedly desperately in love are thrown apart from one another by circumstance and family loyalty. The story, however, takes an immediate left-turn by introducing the human hand-grenade that is Ed Polsue’s Francis Henshall. We then follow Henshall as he attempts to satisfy his most fundamental needs (eating and … the other thing), getting entangled between two masters who know each other better than Henshall can possibly imagine. 

First off, credit must be given to the astonishingly talented and evidently hard-working cast that Sinclair and her team have assembled. There was not one weak link and the performances all provoked uproarious laughter. Edd Smith and Ned Fiennes shone in small but eccentric roles as a voyuer, a policeman, and a priest attempting to steal a suitcase (among others). Lydia Milne carried off a dual-role with aplomb, keeping her performance understated while pretending to be her dead brother Roscoe but exuding charm and warmth as Rachel Crabbe. Her scenes with Louis Wilson where they tear each other’s clothes off on the pier they’ve just attempted to fling themselves from were perhaps the raunchiest I’ve seen on a St Andrews stage, and both performers threw themselves into it with a chemistry and professionalism to be wondered at. Wilson was also fantastic as the brash, sadistic yet oddly loveable Stanley Stubbers, his performance being the most technically impressive of a very talented bunch. A special shout-out must also go to Charlie Flynn as the unfortunate octogenarian who is flung about the stage mercilessly, proving a highlight of an already jam-packed play.

None of the cast’s fantastic chemistry would work nearly as well, however, without the revelation that is Ed Polsue. His Henshall manages to be simultaneously immensely base and incredibly endearing, his interactions with the audience a marvel that utterly shattered the fourth-wall and had me completely immersed in the irreverent farce going on onstage. He sparks off every character in turn and barrels the plot forward through his (often assinine) attempts to serve two masters at once. Polsue has shown himself to be a wonderfully diverse performer with a breezy charisma that can carry a whole three-hour show with apparent ease.

It is clear just how much effort and time have gone into this show. The comedic timing, whether with dialogue or slapstick, was flawless, and could only have been managed through endless rehearsals and meticulous choreography. The staging was sparse but immersive, even edging towards lavish in the penultimate pier jumping scene, where a projector beautifully evoked the sea under a moonlit sky. Lighting cues were used effectively to imbue the production with a zany, often surreal bursts of colour. The costumes were gorgeous and period-accurate; even the scene transitions contained zany musical numbers that kicked the play further into surrealism.

While all these elements add up to an absolute sensorial extravaganza, my one niggling concern is that none of it adds up to very much. The plot is paper-thin and, while that is often the point of farce, by the very end I felt as if the show had gotten a little breathless under the weight of how much fun it was having. Like an excessive amount of cotton candy, one can’t help feeling a little empty after the sugar rush has subsided.

Even so, I really am in awe of the project Sinclair has managed to pull off. Just thinking about the amount of meticulous planning this show must have taken makes my head hurt. She and her entire team made a show of a truly professional standard, and they should be immensely proud—and probably have something to drink.  

4 out of 5 Owlies