“Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
And the musk of the rose is blown.”
So goes an eerie stanza from Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘Maud’- a dark story of a crazed lover. For those unfamiliar with it, the protagonist falls madly in love with the beautiful Maud, but her brother forbids the courtship – from there, everything spirals further and further into madness. Tennyson loved the poem so much that, at parties, he would spontaneously recite it in its 1000+ line entirety. Luckily for time-constrained Oxford students, co-director Tabitha Hayward has cut down the poem substantially, changing parts around to produce a more engaging play.
The emotional instability of the narrator is the source of the poem’s power, as the world depicted is entirely that of the speaker’s skewed experience. Producer Lauren Jackson and directors Tabitha Hayward and Adham Smart manage to capture the distortion of this world by, first of all, casting only the actor who narrates it. This one-man show is carried off by Johnny Lucas, who plays this poem’s anonymous speaker with an energy that lends itself equally to scenes of delirious happiness, anxious misery, and incensed rage. Although an entire play of Victorian rhetoric may seem off-putting, the exquisite language of this poem is rendered crystal clear by the nuanced, passionate delivery.
Substantial effort has gone into recreating the stormy, volatile atmosphere felt when reading the poem. The strange world constructed by its convoluted rhythms is augmented by a film, projected behind the actor. Atmospheric scenes – of Maud seen through the bushes, or Maud dancing in the reflection of a fountain, or Maud approaching through an archway – all bring her ghostly presence directly into the performance. Throughout the play, the protagonist dwells in his memories, reliving them as if they were occurring in the present. The film projection is an inspired way to bring his interior world to life.
It is clear that the production team for this show have a deep respect for the poem, and watching Johnny Lucas’s performance was one of the most enjoyable experiences of Tennyson’s work I’ve had. This gripping production transforms the odd and off-kilter worldview of its speaker into a haunting, immersive play that will keep audiences enthralled long after they leave the theatre.
‘Maud’ is showing at the Burton Taylor Studio, at 7:30pm, Tuesday-Saturday 7th Week.
Image // Ruth Miller