Best of Hilary Theatre

Cherwell contributors reflect upon the best student theatre of Hilary Term

Derek Mitchell and Marcus Knight-Adams rehearsing for Peritpeteia Productions' 'Hedda'. Source: Peripeteia Productions

Before Hilary inevitably blurs into half-remembered haze, Cherwell contributors reflect upon the student productions which particularly lingered in their minds. Take a chance to refresh your memory of this term’s standout shows.

‘Twelfth Night’ at the Keble O’Reilly – The Post-Truth Theatre Company

Alice Taylor’s production of Twelfth Night at the Keble O’Reilly in January was a truly immersive experience. Set in a nightclub, this staging of Shakespeare’s classic saw violent stage fights and drunken antics as the characters were catapulted from the Elizabethan stage straight to the modern day with some even singing “Wills Grigg’s on Fire”.

As an ensemble piece, this production definitely delivered. Outstanding performances were given by Tom Fisher (as the very dark Duke Orsino), Esme Saunders (Olivia), and Joseph Shailer (Antonio). A tale of twins separated by a shipwreck and reunited through subterfuge and intrigue, a nightclub is probably not the most obvious choice of setting for a production of Twelfth Night. However, Isabel Galwey and Niamh Calway’s design proved the doubters wrong. It was a triumph.

Saunders pranced around the traverse stage as a glamour model-style Olivia, with an entourage of supporters, replete with flashing smartphones, requisite sportswear and personal assistant-cum-personal trainer (Malvolio, played by Robin Ferguson): all with the aim of making it big in reality television. Shrieking and screaming after Malvolio’s big reveal – a picture of him in a compromising position on his smartphone – and a series of rather uncomfortable advances, Saunders was exquisite as the twenty-first century’s greatest invention, the style-devoid style icon. The character is the ultimate petulant child.

The Post-Truth Theatre Company certainly delivered on its remit with this production of Twelfth Night, showing us the excess of young alcoholics (the laddish and likeable Christopher Page and Staś Butler as Toby and Andrew respectively), the dangers of social media, and unwanted sexual advances.

Harry Hatwell

‘13’ at the Keble O’Reilly – Mercury Theatre Productions

Mike Bartlett’s ‘13’ was an ambitious play. Practically, it made use of a large cast, presenting short, interspersed scenes in a ‘collage’ style. Through this medium, Bartlett confronts complex debates concerning belief, war, and politics. Grappling with all of these discussions simultaneously did mean that the concepts risked becoming conflated: the result was a strange debate in which faith, socialism and pacifism are all on the same side, with the warmongering conservative pragmatists on the other. I question whether either warmongering or pragmatism is unique to conservatives or atheists, and so had some issues with this. Ultimately however, these difficulties lay with Bartlett’s script and not with Mercury Theatre Productions.

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Considering the nature of the script, therefore, Director Alex Blanc and his team did an admirable job with ‘13’. The ‘collage’ style was certainly achieved effectively, even without the luxury of the set changes provided by the original production in the Olivier Theatre. Lee Simmonds handled the Christ-like John with admirable subtlety, carrying an eerie atmosphere in all his entrances. We never really know whether to like the character or not. Out of the thirteen central characters, Maddy Page particularly shines as Ruth – hers is a less caricatured role than some (such as the Hitchens-esque Stephen) and allowing her the freedom to create a more well-rounded character. Even if the ambition didn’t always pay off, this production in the O’Reilly was an interesting watch, and the team should feel proud.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski

‘Hedda’ at the Oxford Playhouse – Peripeteia Productions

Staging Lucy Kirkwood’s Notting Hill ‘Hedda’ is a task that would intimidate the most experienced of professionals, yet the cast of Peripeteia Productions’ interpretation were in no way daunted, and were all the more rewarded for their efforts. This Hedda was spoilt, petulant and lazy, frustrating, unlikable, but provocative. In steering away from clumsy attempts to ‘explain’ Hedda’s behaviour – particularly inexcusable when this ‘modern’ Hedda is in no way as oppressed as Ibsen’s original – the production allowed the audience to interpret Hedda as a portrait of twenty-first century female frustration. This was an individual who had never been encouraged to have a purpose of her own, or to define her status as distinct from her relations with men, be that the Dean’s daughter, or the academic’s wife. That Hedda considered such self-definition sufficient underlines the necessity of psychological empowerment in an age when we assume that de jure equality already exists.

Part of the ‘A Vote Of Her Own’ programme at the Playhouse, the play was enriched, rather than hindered, by its modernisation to a 21st century context. It added nuanced depictions of depression to an already psychologically complex source-text, and simultaneously presented, as in Ibsen, a character who exploits societal perceptions of her femininity to manipulate those around her.

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Hedda (artfully interpreted by India Opzoomer) may epitomise privilege, yet this production portrayed the psychological obstacles which block women from feeling satisfied with their lives and consequently did not leave the audience completely hating Hedda. The nature of such obstacles was left for the audience to define in what was a timely and provocative offering from Peripeteia Productions.

‘Hedda’ raised the limits of what student drama can be.

Izzy Troth and Charles Britton

The Flick – Michael Pilch Studio, The Immediate Theatre Project

The Immediate Theatre Project’s ‘The Flick’ was the cherry on the cake of Hilary theatre for me. Running in eighth week, it really finished off the term with a flourish. A friend of mine summed it up well: we weren’t watching actors acting, we were watching people being people. And there lies the beautiful irony. It was a play about workers in a cinema. Accordingly, the audience were faced by rows of seats. The screen was behind us, and every so often clips would play, meaning we had to crane our necks to get a good view. In a way, it was a very cinematic experience. We might be watching two characters having a mundane conversation about projectors, the nuances in their facial expressions being absolutely minute. Yet the subtext was eloquently conveyed. Unrequited love, betrayal, deception, depression, existentialism… all emerged in the observation of people going about their everyday lives, doing their jobs. You can’t usually achieve that sort of subtlety without shoving a camera up against someone’s face, but this production succeeded. This weepy finalist will have fond memories of ‘The Flick’ as one of the greatest gems she has seen while at Oxford.

El Port