The Aeneid: A Journey

Fri 6th – Sun 8th July 2012

reviews

Ella Kirsh

at 04:03 on 7th Jul 2012

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Magdalen College School’s first collaboration with the Oxford Playhouse is nothing if not ambitious. ‘The Aeneid: A Journey’ must have been a baptism of fire for its student cast and crew, who were challenged by their adult counterparts to master every trick and twist of mounting a professional production. They acquitted themselves with aplomb. Far from being intimidated by the large, unfamiliar space, the audience saw a group of Trojan refugees claim complete and unambiguous ownership of the stage and theatre for the night.

The ensemble took up position on stage before the majority of the audience had sat down, and so from the very start established the mood of the play. Before the lights dimmed the chorus split off into little groups and played out mini-scenes. Two earnest young men strolled around together, apparently discussing the origins of the universe, while directly behind them a blond-haired, cherubic fellow briefly broke the fourth wall to wave bashfully to a loved one in the audience. In the programme notes director Joanne Pearce explains that ‘My dramatic roots are firmly embedded in the concept of the ensemble’. The drama was undoubtedly at its strongest in the ensemble scenes, and the combination of the chorus’ energetic talents and the creative staging produced some really effective moments; the representation of the toiling Tyrians/busy bees in the first book, the depiction of the ruinous chaos wrought by Rumour in book 4 and the highly enjoyable ‘Chariots of Fire’ parody in book 5 stand out as particularly memorable. Much of the stage management demonstrated commendable attention to detail, such as the synchronised arrow-shooting puppets in the hunt scene, expertly managed by the endlessly malleable chorus. Also worth comment was the very classical suggestion of the privileged access to the Gods granted to bards, implied by positioning the Poet (Conor Diamond) on the stairwell of the bickering Gods.

As the play progressed, however, the episodic nature of the staging started to detract from other elements. The props were well-made by MCS pupils and entertainingly used, but it often seemed like they determined the action of the play rather than vice versa (the random walk-on penguins were perhaps the most gratuitous example of this). The technical team were palpably overexcited: rather than make the most of the considerable vocal and instrumental talent within the cast (showcased in ‘The Lost Child of Troy’, fronted by a gorgeous acapella treble solo), our senses were bamboozled with saxophones, violins and neo-classical incidental music (to name just the pleasant musical elements). Likewise, the double depictions of Neptune’s mortal and divine forms in the opening scenes and the manipulation of puppet-Iulus by Cupid were splendidly simple yet effective techniques which provoked crucial questions about the role of the gods and fate in the world of the play. These lines of enquiry were extended and enriched by the constantly shifting perspectives on the mortal characters (viewed from the perspective of the gods, as a mass, as individuals, merely a group of puppets, hidden by masks, behind screens etc.). However these careful techniques were much undermined by the inconsistencies in the varying depictions of puppets, ghosts and Gods. The techniques which were most striking and compelling when viewed in isolation, in context looked arbitrary and therefore unworthy of such searching analysis. A sense of breathless experimentation pervaded many of the scenes, and prevented the production from ever being a slick, unified collection of disparate yet mutually complementary elements.

There was much good acting work, although the spectacle of the production often threatened to overshadow the spoken dialogue. Ally Cloke’s jaunty Achaemenides provided some well-judged comic relief, Krishan Patel delighted with his outrageous character sketches of Rumour and Charon, and Thomas Lodge as Anchises brilliantly communicated the old man’s dignity in life and gravitas in Elysium, but beyond all others Alex Cowan stood out for the utter conviction with which he swept the audience along and his pitch-perfect delivery. Dominic Henry presented a robust Aeneas, and Kate Apley was a suitably stubborn Dido. Both performances had much to commend them, however they would perhaps have benefited from some more careful consideration of the motivations and implications behind some of their more complex dialogue; particularly in the closing scene of the first act, the action was a little off-centre.

This is an unmistakeably epic production, both in content and scope of ambition. The Alexandrian in Virgil may have had something to say about the excessively long dance which contains Dido’s curse and concludes the first act, as well as about the same act running to nigh on two hours. However, this length is largely down to the extreme faithfulness of the adaptation to the original poem. Occasionally a translated stock formulae or simile seemed redundant, and the work as a whole seems less a tightly-structured play which works as a drama in its own right and more an example of extremely entertaining story-telling. However, the testing of the audience’s patience must be weighed against the seismic advantage of what will probably have been for many in the cast a first encounter with Virgil in all his glory. The vigour, relish and sophistication with which this Herculean task was tackled more than compensated for any formal problems.

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Adelais Mills

at 09:32 on 7th Jul 2012

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Joanne Pearce’s adaptation of the first six books of Virgil’s 'Aeneid' performed by Magdalen College School has some outstanding points of merit, and several very talented performers. Unfortunately, for a play largely concerned with dispossession and belonging, any audience member who wasn’t the parent or close relation of one of the actors was swiftly alienated by the embellishment of this adaptation in the way of a multi-media talent show, thwarting any potential it had of becoming more than a glorified school play.

While Pearce's adaptation itself was sensitive to the multiple narrative layers of the poem and well-executed, its lead actors mostly rattled through Virgil’s complex verse, either simply speaking too fast or delivering their lines with a lack of identification with the emotion the words intended to convey. Aeneas himself was a victim of this particular problem. Dominic Henry’s Aeneas looked the part: noble and pious in bearing at all times, yet Henry directed his lines strictly to the middle distance, and often failed to interact with other actors in many of the scenes that carried real affective potential, for example in his leaving of Dido and the final meeting with his father in the Underworld. Kate Apley’s portrayal of Dido, on the other hand, was one of the notable successes of the production. A complex study in the trials of loving heroes whose fate must be their sole desire, Apley deftly managed Dido’s progression through love-struck to avenging Queen of Carthage, and finally to pitiful abandonment and death. Yet overshadowing all the heroes and Gods who vied for the stage was Conor Diamond’s animated Poet. There was not a scene in which Diamond did not play his part; either looking quietly and intently on as the action unfolded, or else leaping in to narrate in a lucid tone and with a commanding sense of his role’s import. Finally, Krishan Patel, in his two small roles as the wonderfully licentious and camp Rumour, and his comic twist on Charon, the boatman of the Underworld, was a talented revelation.

The production values of this play were arguably both its triumph and its downfall. An ingenious piece of set design on the part of Jacob Hughes used a rotating pair of staircases which functioned alternately as Olympus, the walls of Troy, the passage between Scylla and Charybdis, and rotated continually during Book Six to reveal each of the circles of Hell as Aeneas descended. Yet the notable inclusion of three original compositions, sung by the ensemble cast, were a genuinely terrible addition to the drama. The piece entitled ‘Dido’s Lament’ was particularly overworked and painfully endless. Pearce’s self-confessed inability to “say ‘no’ to anyone” also resulted in the inclusion of several of the actors playing instruments on stage, including an atonal peon to love on viola by Aeneas and Dido.

By staging this production at the Oxford Playhouse certain expectations are created. First and foremost, that it is accessible to the general public. This was not the case. While not entirely bereft of the qualities expected of a professional production, it nonetheless remains one for the parents.

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