There are, I think, two truisms that deserve to be noted before we start. The first is that new writing at Oxford is ridiculously hard to sell. No one’s heard of the play, so marketing it requires extreme ingenuity to be considered anything close to a success. The crew are usually a group of friends (who else would put the time, sweat and tears that a production requires towards a play written by some floppy-haired, probably pretentious student?) It’s all a bit unknown and insular, perhaps even a little cliquey. The second truism is that the BT, the little brother to the gargantuan Playhouse, has always had a problem with quality. There are only occasionally true gems amongst the collection of baloney – I once heard someone comment that productions at the BT make pornos look well acted, and whilst that comment is perhaps a little ribald for my liking, the sentiment stands.
The Queens-based team behind Me & Mike thus faced a difficult task when I arrived at the Shulman Auditorium to watch a scene from the latest piece of new writing to be staged at the BT. My expectations were, to be completely sincere, not high.
In regards to the first truism, Me & Mike are doing well. The combination of Ksenia Kulakova’s artwork and Izzy Boscawen’s graphics make for a gorgeous visual identity. The gif Facebook profile pictures are an arresting, original idea. So far, so good. But of course the real question is whether the production itself is any good.
A one-man play (save for some input from a voice actor playing Mike), the success of Me & Mike thus rests squarely on the shoulders of Will Stevens, the eponymous ‘Me.’ With his stuttering vulnerability and slightly squinted, perhaps close-to-tears eyes, he immediately forges a bond between himself and those watching. Though not all scenes will break the fourth wall, this one does, and to startling effectiveness. One feels a sense of intimacy, perhaps even slight intrusion, whenever Stevens speaks. Five flats set up behind him will have images projected onto them, representing his laptop screen whenever he consults it. But the flats are mismatched and distorted, creating a broken image that varies depending on the position of each audience member. Each spectator’s perspective is a little different.
This plurality of interpretation is, director Laura Day tells me, central to the narrative. As the play progresses we will have increasing cause to question Stevens’s character and the things he is telling us. It is up to the audience to string together the vignette-style scenes and make sense of the character that is being unfolded before us. Indeed, in the short preview scene, the narrator’s strange, deflective reliance on Mike – on his actions, beliefs, observations – was reminiscent of the narrator of Fight Club and his now oft-quoted declaration, “I know this because Tyler knows this.” As we find out at the end of Palahniuk’s novel, Tyler is a creation of the narrator – a means of escape and an ideal to venerate. In Me & Mike, the constant deflection of the narrator points to something similarly unhinged within his own psyche. But what exactly? Go, take forty minutes out of your evening of procrastination and see the play to find out – for once with new writing at the BT, you won’t regret it.