Mountains isn’t really a play. It’s a sensory experience. Other than three poetic monologues, there are no words. Instead, the actors convey the drama of pregnancy and birth through movement and sound. As such, the performance is unlike most other student theatre in Oxford.
The journey to the performance venue – St Catherine’s boathouse – is an adventure in itself. Walking along the Thames path, Oxford gradually disappears into the night and the open country begins. The boathouse is only ten minutes out from St Aldate’s. But it feels as though it’s off the map in the middle of nowhere. Outside the boathouse, audience members are handed masks to wear. Then the audience is led up to the room where the action takes place. At first glance, it looks like the setting for a cultish ceremony – it is dimly-lit and draped with red fabric. The beginning of the play hardly dispels this impression.
The first five minutes of the performance are immensely disorienting. The actors pound the floor with their hands, slap their chests, tear at their clothes and contort their limbs. The space is small and the actors are less than a metre away from the audience. Combined with the subject matter, this means that the whole experience is oddly voyeuristic. If not for the masks, I would have felt distinctly awkward. But that is part of the performance’s power – it is intimate, uncomfortable and immersive.
Mountains must be physically exhausting for the cast. They throw themselves around the stage from start to finish. I, too, found the performance tiring as the audience must stand up for the whole hour. From time to time, I also found it mentally draining. There are periods when the actors’ movements repeat endlessly and William Lucas’s soundtrack seems stuck in a loop. Mountains feels as though it could do with a little more editing, a little sanding down at the edges. Nonetheless, it still retains a raw energy that is enough to overcome most of its faults.
The three monologues, written by Kat Dixon-Ward, are poetic and arrestingly direct. Occasionally, they lapse into cliché or ring false. But for the most part they are just the right mixture of smooth musicality and sharpness. For me, the Second Woman’s meditation on her unborn child particularly stood out. It was delivered with warmth and feeling by Teddy Brigs and proved to be one of the few hopeful moments in an otherwise dark performance.
Towards the end of the play, the audience is led out of the close confines of the boathouse into the night. At this point, three or four people are led off in separate direction to hear stories of pregnancy or motherhood while the bulk of the audience are treated to an improvised speech by one of the cast. In the background, a film installation by Bea Grant plays.
This shift of scene is, I imagine, intended to mimic the emergence of a young baby into the world – and it succeeds. The transition from a small, dark, warm room to the open air is quite unexpected and helps to shift the play out of the theatre and into the outside world. The director, Bea Udale-Smith deserves a great deal of credit for this coup de théâtre.
Mountain is an exciting performance. It could be shorter, tighter, more economical with its movements and more varied in its sounds. But it is nothing if not adventurous. I would recommend it to anyone who fancies something a little bit off the beaten track.