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Review: XX (kiss kiss)

Aidan Balfe is enthralled by the innovation of the algorithmic play about love

At first glance, Poltergeist Theatre’s xx appears to be defined by nothing but total randomness. A self-proclaimed piece of ‘experimental new writing’, xx, written and directed by Jack Bradfield, is unlike anything most audiences will have experienced before. Each night, the configuration of five actors, five monologues, and ten scenes is randomised according to a computer algorithm, apparently allowing for over 36 trillion possible variations.

The modular, Rubix-cubed nature of xx turns on their heads many of the basic building blocks of traditional theatre: plot; character; and the role of the director. The audience find their seats as the cast huddle around a whiteboard, drawing up the formula which tells the order of the play.

It is testament to the talent of the cast – and Bradfield’s faith in their aptitude – that they are able to interchange and adapt to each new configuration, having only learnt which scenes and characters they are to perform hours before curtain call. By the end of the Fringe, the plan is to reveal this information on stage, simultaneously to the audience and cast, minutes before the show starts.

Serena Yagoub stepped up exceptionally well to the unique challenge xx presents. Alongside Will Stevens, these two actors particularly shone in their ability to construct a new, robust character within each scene or monologue: one moment the shy and angsty teenager, tentatively playing footsie in the dark; the next the hopeless romantic, disastrously attempting to serenade the object of their desire.

The set is ultra-minimalist. Similarly, the props consist almost entirely of a few ropes and bungee cords, imaginatively used for both quotidian inanimate objects such as beds and handrails, and in other scenes suggestively metaphorical boundaries and ties between characters. Such minimalism adds to the fluid, dynamic form of the production, constantly shifting, often quite abruptly.

The payoff for this experiment in modularity is that at times the experience becomes a little taxing for the audience. The machine-gun rapidity of bizarre scenarios and almost cryptic monologues is at points somewhat overwhelming.

However, the scant set, simple props and algorithmic character selection give the jumbled scenes a somewhat paradoxical universalism. Despite their often absurd content – varying from an astronaut saying goodbye at the train station, to a pagan ritual in the park – these scenes are faithful investigations into the various manifestations and aspects of love: unrequited, maniacal, restrictive, and occasionally liberating.

The monologues (whose order is one of the only non-randomised features of the play) and the subtle presence of repeated motifs and images, give substance to the creeping sense of an underlying connection between all that initially seemed so random. The tantalising promise of all this culminates in the brilliant, dizzying final monologue, at once both delivering a supreme final twist yet also reaffirming the message of all that has gone before.

The genius of Bradfield’s piece, made flesh by the extraordinary talent of the cast and crew, is that this play, to be enjoyed on one level for its humour, wit, and occasional outright silliness, is also at its core a nuanced, sensitive, and powerful exploration of that mystical phenomenon we call ‘love’ – a difficult feat for which it must be praised.

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