The first thing that must be said about this play, is how lucky we are at Oxford to have this sort of thing going on right under our noses (or in my case as a denizen of Keble, under my feet). Iqbal Khan, a freelance director who has previously worked for some of the biggest names in the pantheon of acronyms (RSC, RADA, RWCMD etc), directing Oxford students in the first ever performance of a new play by noted classicist and writer Shomit Dutta. What makes this project even more exciting and unique is that they chose to give themselves a mere five and a half rehearsal days to put together a fully staged and scored, bookless production (all of which explains why this production sold out quite so fast).
This play centres around two interlinked battlegrounds in the tenth year of the Trojan War – Helen’s bedroom, and the guard’s room below. The bedroom is full of high intrigue and marital collapse – dominated by a vociferous Helen (Mary Higgins) striding amongst it all, trapped in a room in a besieged city, and struggling with the international ramifications of her love life. Downstairs, the guards pass the time before their contract expires – playing cards and considering their own agency. The uproarious comedy of Yash Saraf and Joshua Dolphin is reminiscent of ‘Rosencantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ – the powerless but witty friends tossed by storms (and narratives) beyond their control. Odysseus passes from the lower world to the upper, disguised as a maid – leading to a absurdly funny scene where Helen undresses, seemingly unaware that the silent six foot woman wrapped entirely in pink cloth is not quite who she says she is.
Sadly, the lack of rehearsal did occasionally make itself felt – dialogue lacked the rhythm and urgency that can only come with time and lines were occasionally a little sloppy. Equally, set and costume malfunctions happened just enough for it to be ever so slightly jarring. The actors have to be commended for their work; they carried on through the blips with incredible composure and professionalism. The musicality of the language of the script was astonishing – the wit, humour and agility of the puns and allusions were impressive. However, when the monologues reached for great, transcendent truths – such as the thread of random chance that united bedroom and guardroom, they rang hollow more often than they rang true.
The real problem with this play was that it didn’t end; due to rehearsal constraints, the entire final movement was left unperformed. This combined with some odd musical choices and underexplored side characters (Cassandra and Priam) to leave the play unsatisfying as a whole. This was an exciting piece of writing, from a phenomenal director, with a stunning cast – I just wish they’d been given the time to do it justice.