Rewritten: Questioning the Success of this Experimental Piece2nd June 2017
Rewritten is a commendable, experimental piece of student theatre, attempting to offer a visualisation of the mental post-mortem succeeding an unsuccessful relationship. Unfortunately, as the events of the performance continue to replay in my mind, akin to the reoccurrence of the events within the play itself, I am left uncertain as to whether this particular play was similarly unsuccessful, as is so often case with experiments.
Regretfully, the bulk of the problems I have with this new piece, written and directed by Elli Siora, originate from the false promise which the title advertises. The fragmented narrative follows the turbulent experience of a female first year Oxford student, Bella (Alannah Burns), who enters into precipitous relationship with a masters student, William (performed interchangeably by Alec McQuarrie, Stephen Rose and James Fowler), throughout which the couple repeatedly endure emotional conflict as a result of their unwillingness to officially commit to one another. After numerous fruitless attempts to distance themselves from one another, or to pursue a relationship not charged by sexuality, Bella and William finally acquiesce to their incompatibility, at which point the events of the play rewind such that their relationship plays out again. During the second rehearsal of events, however, Bella’s perception of William is vastly different, the beforehand endearing yet reserved bed partner now portrayed as aloof, inattentive and borderline foul fuck-boy. Herein I take my primary issue: the events have not been rewritten but revisited, tainted by heartbreak, such that the conversations Bella has in the first half of the play return in an almost contemptible new light. Whilst this could be an accurate representation of ‘break-up recovery process’ for some, the repetition of lines with an altered intonation as opposed to the rewriting of these exchanges results in a feeling of incongruousness between the dialogue and the emotional atmosphere of the second act.
I am left uncertain as to whether this particular play was similarly unsuccessful, as is so often case with experiments.
The dialogue between Bella and William, in the first half of the performance at least, is impressively naturalistic. Their first drunken conversation in the smoking area, including continual interruptions from Bella’s giggling, the hazy interplay of romantic philosophy which Bella and William muse upon at various points throughout their relationship and William’s defensive explanation of his enthusiasm for cricket are all joyously entertaining; the humour generated from their converse seems organic rather than intentional or theatrical. The polite awkwardness which McQuarrie brings to his performance of William redeems the character for his persistent reticence, such that he is more endearing than offhanded. Meanwhile, Fowler’s portrayal of William is brimming with wit and charm, whilst conveying beautiful innocence and vulnerability in his few silent moments on stage. It is hard to properly judge the performance of Rose, as ultimately he spends very little time in the role; in the select conversations he has, he seems to echo the sweet bashfulness of McQuarrie, (perhaps lacking the same level of charisma) although the brevity of his appearance renders him the most forgettable of the three. The most impressive performance, without question, comes from Burns as Bella. From her confident and playful veneer at the beginning of the performance, to her more explosive emotionally wrought complaints of William’s uncommunicativeness, then the revelation of her ultimate hypocrisy as she alternates from adorable positivity to resentful anguish. Burns puts in a complicated, diverse and subsequently believable performance. As the play shifts into its second act, the male actors similarly demonstrate their range. While Rose’s shyness converts into blatant disinterest, McQuarrie and Fowler become arrogant and austere, framing Burns perhaps unjustly as a victim as she continues to give a reasonably admirable performance. William undoubtedly becomes vilified, the unspoken sadness which Bella refuses to properly voice manifesting in the harshness of her quasi-memory.
`It pains me to admit, at this point, that I cannot fathom why Siora cast three separate actors to play the role of William. Due to the fragmentation of the narrative, each scene ranging from maybe minutes to sometimes months apart, it took until near the end of the first act before I could confidently conclude that this was the same William who Bella was sleeping with, whereas initially I considered the possibility of William being a placeholder for any number of boys with whom she might be having flings. The slight differences in interpretation which each actor took inevitably resulted in the character lacking consistency, thus compounding my confusion further. Additionally, it feels necessary to comment on the amount of nudity in the performance. I appreciate that Elli attempts a naturalistic tone throughout her piece, which as I have mentioned works brilliantly through the dialogue, however I feel that to achieve that naturalistic tone it is not necessary to have McQuarrie, Fowler or Burns in a state of undress as frequently as they are. In moderation, it could have been quite daring and honest, yet soon it became somewhat of a distraction; the performance is voyeuristic enough without the recurrent removal of clothing. Although, I should commend the manner in which the actors handle their naked and intimate moments on stage: they are always tender and candid, never veering into the pornographic.
The attention to detail here is especially successful given the recipient Oxford audience
The staging of the performance itself is inspired. The set design transforms the Pilch into the dissected interior of an average student, each section of the stage individually carpeted or laminated in accordance with the room it represents and shaped like a puzzle piece, extending visually the fragmentary nature of the performance. The attention to detail here is especially successful given the recipient Oxford audience, as the furniture looks reminiscent and may well have been sourced from various students’ accommodation across the university; I especially applaud the use of flooring taken from the Bridge smoking area. The lighting is similarly effective, aiding the transition from dancefloor to kitchen and tracking the time spent in various bedrooms as the light shifted throughout the course of the day. Moreover, I want to emphasise how impressive the sound design is, especially during the second act when more jovial conversations from the previous act which echo eerily about in their physical absence. I should also commend Calypso Hetherington for lending her voice and acoustic guitar to the performance, the song choices subtly underpinning the emotionality of each scene; although, as the second act progressed and William’s disinterest magnified, the gaiety of the acoustic seemed evermore unmatched to the atmosphere.
There are many factors of Rewritten which are praiseworthy, however I cannot honestly say that I found the performance enjoyable towards its finale. Whereas the visual and audible spectacle is among the best I have encountered in Oxford and there are some truly fantastic actors involved, the confusion of the multiple male actors and the drastic tonal change of the second act which is simply incongruous with the brilliant naturalism established in the first made for a difficult and disconcerting watch. The play is a brave effort and starts with good intentions, but unfortunately, much like Bella and William’s relationship, the ending is disappointing.