This week saw my imaginative faculties tested to their very limits: I was set the difficult feat of envisaging myself in a destitute squat, whilst simultaneously relishing the luxurious comfort of New College. This striking contrast made for uncomfortable viewing – it is far easier to feign deafness when walking past a Big Issue seller than have to face the startling inequality which blights the streets of Oxford. Yet this acute dichotomy is precisely the point of Alexander Darby’s new play, Vagrant. The self-proclaimed “original formal blend of documentary and fiction” aims to explore the expansive gap between the privileged student culture, and that of the destitute living directly under the ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford, at once an ancient, wealthy seat of scholarship and a homeless capital of the UK.
Vagrant follows the journey of Lara, a left-leaning, idealistic Oxford finalist, who is so disgusted and enraged by the profound injustice of the discrepancy between rich and poor that she decides to make a radical change. In a moment of inebriated lucidity, she donates all of her money to Oxfam and begins a new life on the streets, leading to inevitable difficulties, drama and distress.
The play, inspired by the work of David Hare, is a distinctive synthesis of gritty plot and verbatim monologues. Darby explains that these monologues, though fictional, are based on exchanges with the homeless undertaken as research for the play: he was trying to “get the rhythm of their speech”, while also seeking to uncover the “most dramatic parts of their lives”. It was with slight unease, therefore, that I went into this preview- surely this very attempt to fictionalise tragic, real-life experiences under the auspices of an institution such as Oxford is something of a paradox?
Although I was only able to see two rather disjointed scenes, the show unquestionably has the potential to deliver on more than just conceptual value. Eliza Easton (Lara) and Bridget Dru (Lara’s sister Isobella) both gave strong and engaging individual performances, yet they were unfortunately let down by unconvincing on-stage chemistry which led to the scene feeling a little stilted and artificial. Having said that, I’m sure that the remaining weeks of rehearsal will help to solidify cast relations and erode any rigidity. The real highlight of the preview came, however, in the form of Zoe Bullock’s impressive performance as a homeless woman named Tracy. Zoe completely inhabited the role, delivering an impressively sustained monologue which was teeming with visceral emotion. Her adept performance assured me that this venture has the capacity to reach beyond mere vague, moralistic pretensions to the realm of true and effectual theatre. The delicate subject matter was also managed with masterful dexterity by the script, avoiding sweeping clichés whilst being candid enough to challenge its audience.
In spite of my initial misgivings, I was actually left rather intrigued by this endeavour. This deliberate rejection of the “abstract writing” that Darby considers to dominate Oxford’s student theatre is a brave attempt to tackle “big ideas”, and it will certainly be interesting to see whether these conceptual ideals will be able to transfer successfully to the stage. Hopefully, additional rehearsal time will allow this thought-provoking play to realise its aspirations by polishing any rough edges such that the complex issues confronted in the play are not undermined by doubts over its theatrical value. Regardless, Vagrant will undoubtedly prove to be both an original and stimulating viewing experience and has the potential to be an extremely incisive production.
Vagrant plays at the Burton-Taylor Studio from Tuesday-Saturday of 7th week.