A creatively ambitious production, there is little that is conventional about this play. Every element seems to be trying to cover new ground, to veer away from the standard student fare. Oxford undergraduate, Milja Fenger, writer-director of the piece, confesses that she is only about 20 percent of the way through the writing process.
The actors will improvise during rehearsal, using new ideas incorporated around a fairly fixed plot structure; then Fenger will write up the best moments of those improvisations until a play is created.
Out of this organic writing process, comes the story of a kind-hearted ecologist and tree-lover, Anna (Maisie Richardson-Sellers).
Her story begins with a young Anna playing in the woods to escape the pressures of her domestic life, unwilling to fully come to terms with her sister’s illness. Instead she begins to obsess about the ash trees that are dying in the woods and, as she grows, her desperation to find a cure for the trees grows too.
Her tale is told by Nick Williams, who adopts all the intervening roles – the imaginary friend, the uncle, as well as that omniscient voice that both narrates and directs Anna’s life. In the short, improvised scene I saw, Richardson-Sellers, as a young Anna, has the wide-eyed demeanour and playful tone of a young child, tempered by a dark latent anxiety. She’s convincingly detached, successfully conveying the innocence that is being prematurely taken away from her. With Williams controlling when she could speak, the scene was given a disturbing, dominating air.
Psychology seems to be one of the play’s themes, along with ecology, specifically the plight of ash trees. Fenger and the cast have talked extensively with the team at Wytham Wood to understand the disease and the corporate interests that get in the way. This well-researched background is intended to inform the improvisations and, ultimately, the characterisations of Anna and narrator.
However, Fenger insists that the preponderance of ‘themes’ – death and decay, the commercial side of conservation – will not result in a moralising play, but instead, a questioning piece.
The set, we are promised, will feature lots of leaves piled on the floor, as well as tree sculptures made from real trees – all designed to make the area look and feel ‘natural’. Also adding to the ‘natural’ feel is the significant creative input from the actors: by helping to write their own script, they should be more comfortable in the parts they play.
Despite a tight plot and – eventually – a ‘script’, the play will still be improvised in parts each night. The whole production has the potential to be thought-provoking, and has an interesting approach to storytelling.
The deep involvement and visible enthusiasm of the small team behind They Will Be Red is, itself, a promising sign.
I predict that it will be a meticulous, well-formed and memorable production.
They Will Be Red runs Tues-Sat of 3rd Week in the Burton Taylor Studio. Tickets:£6/£5