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:

Orphée and Eurydice: Reviewed

Although I am admittedly not a die-hard opera fanatic, I was intrigued by the opportunity to see OpSoc’s unique take on the classic tale of Orphée and Eurydice, which used an excellent new translation by students from Professor Julia Prest’s “Translating French Opera” module. The plot is fairly straightforward: the grief-stricken Orphée journeys to the underworld to rescue her dead lover, Eurydice. Orphée must lead Eurydice back to the land of living without looking back at her—or she will be lost to her forever. 

Director Amy Addinall gave the opera a modern twist using a contemporary army setting, and by casting Orphée as female (Tabitha Benton-Evans). In the world of theatrical productions, reinvention treads a fine line—get carried away and it overshadows the story, don’t go far enough and creative changes lack purpose. On this occasion though, the adaptations only enhanced the opera and were cleverly incorporated through details such as camouflage army attire, military-style trench coats, and a gunshot to punctuate Eurydice’s death.

This allowed the indisputable main strength of this show to shine: the impressive vocal performances of Benton-Evans as Orphée, Millie Haldane as Eurydice, and Catriona Kadirkamanathan as Cupid. Benton-Evans was barely off-stage for the majority of the production, and she mastered the large repertoire of her role with poise and assurance. The chemistry between her Orphée and Haldane’s Eurydice was magnificent, and the comedic moments when Eurydice was exasperated by Orphée’s refusal to look at her were well executed. Especially impressive were the segments where Benton-Evans and Haldane were singing in harmony with impeccable tuning and clarity of diction, something which is very challenging and should be commended. Both Haldane and Kadirkamanathan dealt with tricky high soprano melodies with ease and captured the essence of their characters in their performances. Singing prowess was not confined to those in the lead roles—the chorus stayed in tune throughout and their vocal projection was admirable, especially given the absence of microphones. The band were also brilliant and there were few, if any, missteps in their playing. It was clear the band and the company had rehearsed together extensively beforehand, as they were beautifully in sync, a feat which can be attributed to musical director Fanny Empacher.

However, the first half did seem to plod along lethargically after the emotive opening number, and I did struggle to remain engaged—though that was probably largely due to the music being appropriately sombre after Eurydice’s death. This could have been offset with more interesting blocking, or some lighting or set changes, although I respect that it is in the character of operatic productions to refrain from extravagant tech or choreography. Given the simplistic blocking, the chorus needed to bring a high level of energy and make full use of facial expressions to convey the emotion behind the lyrics they were singing, and unfortunately this was missing at certain points. Similarly, there was a particularly noticeable disparity between those who fully committed to the portrayal of the menacing figures from the underworld and those who did not, which did detract somewhat from the drama of Orphée’s quest.

Nevertheless, given that this show was put together in the space of three weeks, and probably on a very tight budget, this was a truly exceptional effort from all involved, and the end result showcased the talents of the cast. Will I see another opera again in the near future? Maybe not; but seeing a well put-together production such as this one is always an absolute pleasure.

4/5 Owlies

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