Something I’ve heard from several people at this point is just how much time it takes to put together an Oxford Playhouse bid. Those few hours under lights representing the mere tip of the iceberg – hundreds of man hours, a cast and crew list as long as your arm. This production of Rent is no different, and as director Georgia Figgis related to me, they’ve been working on it for a suspiciously similar amount of time to the human gestation period.
When I was invited into the warmth of the Pembroke Pichette studio in a bitterly cold 0th week, the passion in the rehearsal room stood in stark contrast to the pathetic and limp wristed attempts at snow that the Oxford weather was making outside. Musicals have always, in my experience, had a curious ability to garner enormous crowds of die-hard fans in a way that ordinary plays rarely achieve. The relevant group of fans for the musical Rent have taken the curious name Rent-heads; and if their slightly dubious Wikipedia article is to believed, one so called Rent-head went to see the Broadway production 1100 times in its 12 year run (lacking citation). The passion that the Rent team bring to their production is not quite so pathological as that (possibly fictional) individual; however it does burn just as brightly.
I was treated to performances of some of the most iconic songs from Rent – the rousing anger of the title track, the hilarious faux passion of ‘Tango Maureen’, the sound and fury of ‘Take me or Leave me’ which left one of the leads remarking “I’m so sad, I’m so angry, I’m so confused.” (Annabel Mutale Reed as Joanne). This was followed by an utterly heart wrenching performance of ‘Without you’; where sublimely tender choreography coupled with the melodious voice of Eleanor Shaw (Mimi) to leave several cast members in quite earnest floods of tears.
Talking to the cast, it became clear that the reasons for this emotion are complex, but all stem from a deep love of the diversity and depth of the characters in Rent – and the way they relate to their own lives. Rent is set in the 80s in New York’s East Village, a vibrant community living in the shadow of both Reaganomics (this play has allegedly turned one of its leads from a Tory canvasser nonetheless to an out and out leftie) and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the latter of which killed more than 0.8% of the American population in this period – primarily amongst the LGBTQ+ community in vibrant, bohemian centres such as Alphabet City, New York.
HIV and AIDS are still, sadly, incredibly stigmatised even in 2016 (see James Delingpole’s frankly abysmal opening at the Oxford Union debate last term). Everybody involved in this production of Rent is quite evidently passionate about changing that – working alongside the Terence Higgins Trust (http://www.tht.org.uk) in the rehearsal room to help dispel the paranoia, disgust and sniggering which sadly still lingers around the fatal disease. I recommend perusing the production blog (https://rentoxford.wordpress.com) – particularly ‘Isaac: Patrick’s story’ for a deeply personal and saddening account of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the US.
The really striking thing about this production and its rehearsal process, which ties so neatly into the harrowing themes it covers, was the intent of the director and the choreographer not to treat the homosexual relationships in the play as tokens, defined by their sexuality. This intent comes out loud and clear in the choreography for ‘Without you’ – the three couples each express very different emotional difficulties, but there are none of the clichés that one has come to expect from the oft nuance-less portrayals of homosexual relationships in popular culture. Choreographer Ed Addison believes there to be a “level of novelty” in representing heterosexual and homosexual couples alongside one another in dance – “same sex couples dancing, you don’t see that… ever.”
I have no doubt that there’s a very strong population of Rent-heads in Oxford who will not be missing this show (nor the Plush after party) for the world. Even if you haven’t seen this show 1100 times before, I really would recommend going to see it, not only for the music and dance, but also for a cast that truly believes in the issues they’re tackling through their art.