“Oh, had I but followed the arts!” cries Sir Andrew Aguecheek, lamenting his wasted hours spent in the pursuits of fencing, dancing and bear-baiting. If only Sir Andrew were at Oxford, his fortunes would’ve been much improved. For all of you planning to head into the world of theatre, there are some fantastic opportunities available. One of the best is the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS) International Tour, which takes a Shakespeare play to Japan in the summer vacation. I was fortunate enough to be cast this year, and I wanted to give you an inside look at one of the most exciting events of the university’s dramatic calendar.
The tour was set up in 1998 by Thelma Holt, who was then the Cameron Mackintosh Chair of Contemporary Theatre, an annual post which has been held by a number of eminent actors, writers, directors, and producers including Kevin Spacey, Sir Ian McKellen, and, most recently, Stephen Fry. Holt is a titan of British theatre – a RADA-trained acting contemporary of Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, and Judi Dench, she later turned producer and has enjoyed a prolific career working with the most talented directors and actors of our time. One of her favourite collaborators and closest friends is Yukio Ninagawa, the visionary Japanese director famous for his productions of Shakespeare and Greek tragedies. This ongoing relationship between Holt and Ninagawa is the main reason why Oxford sends actors to Japan each summer.
So how does it all come together? In February, teams of directors and producers will compete (“bid”) for the tour. They choose a Shakespeare play, come up with a concept, and have to convince Holt and the University’s Drama Officer to let them take the reins of the project. The winners will then put out a call for cast and a production team, which usually happens some time in the Hilary Term. The tour is open to all years, and often takes talented freshers alongside finalist drama vets. As one of the best Oxford productions, it is highly competitive, but entirely worth auditioning for no matter your previous experience – you’ve got nothing to lose.
Intensive rehearsals get underway at the start of the summer vacation. This year we had only three weeks to rehearse the show from scratch, before flying out to Japan to start performing. Unfortunately we lost our producer shortly before rehearsals were due to start, but despite this setback, the rehearsal process felt relaxed, a testament to our director Max Gill’s ability and vision behind the project. The pace we worked at, and the opportunity to do a play without having to fit it in around tutorials, was exhilarating.
Our interpretation of the text was unconventional. As Max told Oxford Culture Review, “what we’re experimenting with is the idea that Illyria is a kind of psychological landscape, a state of mind. At the beginning there’s a shipwreck which brings Viola to the island, and we’re playing around with the fact that Viola might potentially have died on this shipwreck, and that she has slipped into an otherworld.” In this bizarre purgatory, identities and personalities bleed together – our Clown and Antonio were played by a single actor – tormenting the shipwrecked twins. The notion of duality was also stretched beyond the twins – for example Orsino presided over a harem of Havisham-esque opera singers (Valentine and Curio) who act as the sirens causing the initial shipwreck, and the Duke and Olivia sit on a dual throne, emphasising their parallels of self-absorbed unrequited love.
Creating a play that would work in both Japanese and British theatres was sometimes difficult. Sexuality and the torture of desires were prevalent themes in our interpretation of the text, but had to be toned down in Japan so as not to offend the more conservative audiences. For example, back in England the Lady Olivia’s courtship of Cesario became more sexually charged, with a woozy Sebastian stumbling on stage half-naked and plastered in day-glo lipstick kisses.
Even though the whole production had to be portable, we had an amazing array of costumes from the RSC, a harp and harpsichord, a sandy beach, and a lifesize gallows among the kit list. Our Illyria was built from material that its magpie-like inhabitants had scavenged from the ships wrecked off its shores. Props and costumes came from different historical periods – Maria in a leather corset, Aguecheek in an elaborate plumed hat and ruff, and there was a gramophone found by the Clown, to name but a few. Music and dance also featured notably in the show, with the former often providing a window into characters’ inner mental lives during monologues.
I’d never been to Japan before this summer, and I wasn’t sure what to expect of the audiences out there. We performed at the KAAT Kanagawa Arts Theatre in Yokohama and the Tokyo Metropolitan Arts Theatre, both state-of-the-art facilities which put their Oxford equivalents to shame. It seemed crazy to think that a group of students would be able to fill Japanese professional theatres, performing a play in a foreign language, but we played to full houses for every show!
After being treated like professional actors in Japan, performing back in England came as a bit of a shock. We were student actors once more. For our open-air run in the Old Bodleian Quadrangle we had to carry the entire set and seating halfway across Oxford for every show! That is one of the great things about this tour though – the chance to perform in such diverse venues. Apart from Oxford and Japan, we also performed at the Southwark Playhouse (a great chance for budding professional actors to get scouted by casting agents), and the Yvonne Arnaud Mill Studio in Guildford. Every time the play had to be different, which really kept us on our toes.
When I asked Thelma for her thoughts on this year’s tour, she said that “[Twelfth Night] in spite of initial thunderclouds, was one of the most joyous experiences I have had at Oxford. It confirmed for me why I am there.” The circus isn’t packing up anytime soon. So the take-home message is this – if you’re thinking about getting involved in student drama during your time at Oxford, set your sights on this tour. Look out for the auditions in Hilary, and keep a close eye on the details – there are some exciting rumours about next year. Break a leg, the lot of you!