After a stunted night out, five teenagers wait indefinitely for a train. With nothing to do but sit on the platform, they exchange memories – but the reminiscence is just badly disguised ridicule. Everyone is forced to partake, lest the mockery should fall onto you, and so they scramble and tear into one another, into their ‘friends’, deflecting attention from themselves. Three of the characters, when speaking privately, remark that they don’t belong in their friend group. I, Marcus is at its best when lines ricochet off each other, and the cast invades each other’s personal space. The play unfortunately squanders a fair few of these moments – pulses of silence within the crossfire drop the energy, and poor elocution swallows their jeers.
When these characters’ facades drop and they approach a moment of honesty with one another, the play’s dialogue and performances come the fore.
Alongside this ‘banter’, are the therapy sessions which frame the play, giving us an insight into Marcus’ (Antoni Czerwiński) vulnerable, dissatisfied thoughts. This is not a privilege exclusively to the lead though – through flash backs and phone calls to one side, we are given access to his friends’ interiors, worries, fears, fantasies. Unsurprisingly, their private thoughts are strikingly different to their competitive actions. These parallel but rarely overlapping planes are the strongest asset of I, Marcus, allowing the director to alternately spotlight the friends’ vulnerability, and the bravado they perform to conceal it.
This contradiction between external machismo and inner woe, and more importantly how toxic it can be when left unresolved, drives the action of this play forward, and constitutes its main theme. Finn (Chris Dodsworth) embodies the masculine performance – his voice booms appropriately on the stage, confident and aggressive. Dodsworth’s sneering and accusatory tone quickly let us know that he is the chieftain in our crew. Marcus is not as punchy himself, but he engages in humiliating his ‘friends’, and as the chief character under examination in this play, is the best example of these teenage contradictions. Czerwiński’s wry and cheery manner with his therapist is welcoming yet baffling to the audience initially but as we learn more about the lead’s impulses, an awry presence grows on stage, which this performance’s calmness cannot hide, but only accelerate.
In direction, I, Marcus is one of the more diverse plays to have been shown in Oxford. Physical theatre, and dramatic shifts in blocking are used to demonstrate, among other things, phone calls, therapy and a introduction from the each of the characters. At best, these expose the aforementioned contradictions which skewer every character. One blocking change which particularly worked, was a phone call between Henri (Dom Hopkins Powell), a rugby player, and his father. Within a minute, we become privy to the pressures of a controlling father, who is obsessed with managing his son into the position of team captain. In contrast with a Henri typically played as dismissively self-satisfied, Powell’s performance here becomes frustrated and taut. This detail may only crop up again once more, but it makes a more minor character feel far more realistic, with emotional depth and a life that extends beyond the stage. At worst, these blocking changes can appear haphazard, almost gimmicky. Nonetheless the variability with which the audience can confront the characters’ personalities keeps the play interesting and refreshing.
The play fittingly ends with a dance. In the more delicate moments of intimacy, between Marcus and Scarlett (Lara Marks), Greg (Jonathan Adams) and Scarlett and Charlie (Ali Johnston) and Katy (Mundie Lawrance), conversations pirouette, spin away and trip. When these characters’ facades drop and they approach a moment of honesty with one another, the play’s dialogue and performances come the fore. However, should the wrong word be chosen, the crystalline interaction shatters – softened tones scatter at a single sneer or jibe. Alex Blanc’s writing and direction make for an exciting watch by dint of its variation, alternately pulling punches with intimate connections and ruthless humiliations.
I, Marcus is on at the BT Studio until Saturday the 13th of May.