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Review: The Audacity of Ideas

The Audacity of Ideas is a new play written by Oxford student Gareth Russell and set on the brink of the French Revolution.

I must admit, going by the title, I was worried that this would be seriously dry drama. Writing a play about ideas and setting it over two hundred years ago seemed a bit like walking the plank voluntarily. I expected the play to be as patchy as a student’s essay written in the wee hours of the morning after too much ProPlus. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

This is a play about ideas, yes; but ideas tested out on the streets of Paris and enforced using the guillotine. Russell’s writing is far from perfect, but it does put extraordinary words in the mouths of his characters. The Bible is memorably described as ‘almost a waste of vellum’; revolutionaries are the ‘excrement of the nation’. The urgency of the impending Revolution is brilliantly portrayed and played out among the highest aristocrats at court: ‘there is no middle road between the throne and the scaffold’, Charles tells his brother King Louis.

The Audacity of Ideas follows the politics of the French court and displays the courtiers in all their arrogance and ignorance. Camped-up Charles, the King’s younger brother (played by Gareth Russell) is excellent as he bullies and seduces his way around aristocratic circles.

The play portrays the extravagance of the upper classes, as they witter on about parties on the very cusp of revolution, and still manages to pull off a discussion of the burning ideas of the time. Yet the characterization suffers from this extraordinarily ambitious task, and sometimes slips into caricature.

Russsell aimed to introduce the audience to the smaller players at court, but I certainly came away remembering the spoilt one, the gay one and the serious one, rather than any actual names. What’s more, the play borrows rather a lot from the intrigues and the mannerisms of Liaisons Dangereuses, staged last term at the Moser theatre in Oxford.

Although a little too earnest at times, this new piece of student writing is definitely worth watching. Centuries later, revolutionary spirit is still in the air – not least on the stages of Oxford student theatre.

4 stars out of 5

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