PLAY THE MAN by James Mumford & Patrick Malone Broad St/Trinity College Wednesday 22 – Saturday 25 October Top Oxford drama is self-conscious, wary, defensive and probably insecure. Clever people stride carefully into the empty theatre and set about constructing art, watching the detail, treasuring a precious considered subtlety. They have generally acknowledged values: innovation, sensitivity, progressiveness, vigour. A Cuppers judge this year told the wide-eyed freshers, inverted commas gestured with her fingers, “We want to get away from, you know, the stereotypical ‘Oxford Shakesperean actor’ thing”. And the thesps do flee from it, spiking their hair, choosing challenging scripts, masturbating on the Playhouse stage. Modernist plays flood our studio theatres. They want tightly formed creations of intricate intimate quality, the hand of the thinking artist prominent at every stage. They seek freshness and grit, and, in general, glad I am of it. Play the Man is not typical Oxford drama. The whole production hinges on a sense of significance, of moment and importance, buzzing with zealous, religious fervour for the gravity and immensity of the story it has to tell – that behind the burning at the stake on Broad Street of the Protestant martyrs in 1555. It begins on the street itself, where the audience stands around the Actual Place of Burning Real People. Then after three minutes, despite all the hype, that’s it for Broad Street, and we trundle into Trinity’s Durham Quad, where the rest of the play takes place. The script, written by James Mumford and Patrick Malone, both students here, is for the most part like a Shakespeare history play without the poetry. The dialogue is uncomfortably inconsistent, leaping from authoritative antiquated rhetoric (“Look around, Sir, the Abbey tells its own story this evening”) to jarringly modern banter (“It’s a gamble they hope will pay off”). The action, similarly, cuts from Renaissance-style history (figures of importance pace around, wring their hands, recite long political speeches) to scenes of intimate human interest. Acting, consequently, tends to lack subtlety. But the writers have lent so much thought to the overall dramatic impact and structure of their play, to the significance of every event and the development of each character, that rough edges of psychology and language are smoothed over by sheer energy., momentum and ambition. Each awkward moment is saved by rushing into something else; missing delicacy in the acting is papered over with sudden and convincing emotional extremes. Ned Dalby, as Cranmer, is particularly commanding. The direction is exciting and the staging meticulous. Despite everything, they pull it off. Some top figures at OUDS will scorn this cod, hamming B-grade RSC, but those who temporarily relax their drive for art will genuinely enjoy the fruits of an exciting, worthwhile project.ARCHIVE: 1st Week MT2003