Imagine a Coen brothers film as written by Angela Carter. By turns dark, whimsical, monstrously cruel and deliciously sweet, String of Pearls may well be the best play of Trinity term so far, which is really saying something in a term which has already seen both Living Together and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Director Caitlin Jauncey and her cast and crew deserve congratulations for taking such an aggressively weird, difficult play, and making it come across so effortlessly.
The plot is a dense and complex affair, featuring about thirty different characters, all played by a cast of four. The story is delivered through a series of monologues, as the titular string of pearls changes hands and we spend time with each respective owner.
This is a play that doesn’t mess about. The play starts and we are unceremoniously thrust into the life of an old woman preparing for her granddaughter’s wedding, and searching for her old pearl necklace. The play then jumps into the past and spends the rest of its running time following the trinket’s progress from person to person, building up to a conclusion which could easily have felt trite and clichéd, but which instead feels immensely satisfying. The play is a shell game, switching furiously between dramatically different tones, styles, and types of characters, such that the obvious resolution feels fresh and surprising. This play is not afraid to challenge its audience, but if you’re willing to put in the mental legwork to keep up with its dense and richly-woven plot, you will also find it very rewarding.
Of course, a good cast helps, and the four actors take well to challenging material. All of them have great comic timing, and skilfully handle the rapid and dramatic shifts in tone the play requires. All four manage the difficult feat of embodying the character of the moment while projecting a sense of underlying personality, which is no mean feat, especially when so much of the rest of the play is clamouring for our attention. Emma Buchy-Dury is an enormously witty performer, while Helene Bonnici displays a quiet gravitas. Alex Worrell gives an incredibly poignant performance and Alice Moore does a brilliant job of conveying emotional depth. The staging is similarly good, with minimalist presentation and imaginative use of lighting, helping to make scene transitions feel smooth and natural, which is always tricky in a play like this.
A triumph of imagery, intellect and atmosphere, String of Pearls is dense, strange, and deeply moving. Its bold experimentalism may not be for everyone, but it is without a doubt the most intriguing play the BT has served up all year. This is what Oxford drama is all about.
String of Pearls is on at the BT Studio until Saturday 23rd May, performing at 7.30pm.