Troilus and Criseyde. Romeo and Juliet. Bella and that shiny vampire kid. The struggle of love against opposing cultural backgrounds is a staple of tragedy which we can’t get enough of, and Malorie Blackman has established her position in the canon with ‘Noughts and Crosses’, set in a dystopian world in which the status of the white ‘noughts’ is suppressed by the black ‘Crosses’. It’s no surprise that this adaptation by Dominic Cooke was snapped up by the RSC, as it bears the hallmarks of a decidedly Shakespearian tragedy — a defiant romance, an unreceived letter, even a madwoman in the form of the ethereally Ophelian Lynette McGregor.
Sam Elwin and Emmanuella Kwenortey play Callum and Sephy, a nought and a Cross caught in the tumult between the two sections of society. Both were performed with an almost tangible frustration as they become victims of their surroundings. They are flawed characters, yes, but the very acute way in which their flaws were drawn out made them instantly likeable, and it is this likeability which made their slow loss of idealism all the more tragic. However, by the second half the actors were frequently stumbling over their words, which was distracting enough to give the audience license to laugh at some of the more clumsily delivered lines. This also detracted from the climax, which occurs after a gap of three years, but by which point Callum still seemed the defiant schoolboy he was in the first half. Whilst this may be a teething problem, the build up to two execution scenes were, surprisingly, quite lifeless. Conversely, Fiona Johnson’s portrayal of Callum’s mother was faultlessly raw, and so carried much of the emotional weight of the play.Â
Director Phosile Mashinkila’s choice to use a projection screen was a confusing one: whilst it yielded some initial impact, this was rendered useless by the subsequent use of on-stage actors for television scenes, and the projections were not used frequently enough for it to become an effective device. Emma Glaser’s set design allowed black/white symbolism to pervade every part of this play, and was most effective in the second half when it gave slightly more to feed the audience’s imagination.Â
Anything in Oxford that handles the topic of race is bound to be treading on thin ice. It was interesting to see that the Crosses were played by a racially mixed cast, whilst the noughts were exclusively white. In a story where social positions are reversed, this gives the impression of “white people vs. others” rather than the stark duality ofÂ “one race vs. another race” (as intended by the original), and is therefore dangerously accusatory, instead of a polemic on equality. It’s discomforting to acknowledge, but I suspect this was an expediency at the scarcity of black actors in Oxford, and so the production itself highlights the racism endemic to elitist education: a theme it so brilliantly evokes in the first half. Despite a flawed production, I would still say therefore that anyone at Oxford needs to see this play, not only for nostalgic value (we are, after all, the generation brought up on ‘Noughts and Crosses’ and ‘Pig Heart Boy’), but because it boldly addresses inequality: the omnipresent elephant in Oxford’s room.