CUPPERS: Duck Variations (Univ)

Wed 9th November 2011



at 11:59 on 10th Nov 2011



It was with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation that I approached University College's production of 'Duck Variations'. The trepidation came from the fact that this play is, ostensibly, about two men sitting watching ducks, and possibly the only thing more boring than sitting watching ducks is having to sit and watch people sitting watching ducks. The anticipation, on the other hand, came from University College miraculously being in first place in the Oxford Theatre Review poll 24 hours before its first performance. I expected great things.

Sadly, these expectations were not fulfilled. The original play by David Mamet is, of course, not really about ducks. The two characters use the ducks to lecture each other on life, love, friendship, sex and death. It's remarkable how versatile the duck is as a metaphor really. Daniel Frampton's idea to allocate these dialogues to diverse couples of all ages and backgrounds was undoubtedly, on paper, a great one: it created opportunities to accommodate a larger cast and gave a chance for creative adaptation, both of which are likely to get the thumbs up from Cuppers judges. However, in practice, the play seemed disjointed and, as much as I was gunning for it to work, the script did not always translate well to the chosen characters. Whilst the conceit of opening with two young children and closing with two old men gave the play a satisfyingly allegorical structure, the attempt to shoe-horn a script intended for a pensioner into the mouth of a wide-eyed child made the first scene bizarre and disorientating: by no means a good start. This sense of the uncanny continued with a teenage couple (Polina Ivanova, Redmond Traynor), engaged in the throes of young love but expressed in a style of language that just didn't add up, and their admirable efforts to compensate for this through physical affection fell short. Having said this, for anyone who values their relationship with their grandfather, it's probably for the best that the post-coital flirtations of a couple don't have any similarities with the conversations of old men.

This was one of those rare occasions when the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Hidden behind the distracting format were some gems of acting that were extremely promising. A clown double act (Andrew Laithwaite, Joseph Allan) provided some comedy respite and imbued the script with a sharp comic timing that left the audience wanting more. Likewise Rob Natzler, who took the role of a terminally ill patient, offset the near-relentless slew of platitudes with a well judged delivery and tone. As a character from the original script, Joseph Saxby managed to haul the play from its amorphous rumination to something resembling an emotional peak, and Daniel Frampton was convincingly stiff jointed and obviously at ease with playing an elderly man. It's safe to say that not enough technical preparation went into this performance. An uncomfortably prolonged confusion with the spotlights early on suggested an unfamiliarity not only with the equipment, as is usually the case, but an unfamiliarity with the script.

Michael Caine gave the following advice on acting: “Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath”. I'm no actor, but I guess that Cuppers is, in some ways, like a duck. It demands an intense amount of effort for a mere half hour of drama and the best performances are those which appear effortless. The actors of 'Duck Variations' certainly have potential but were mired by the ambitious gamble of their choice. I suspect that 'Duck Variations' is trying to be like a Samuel Beckett play (the type of play everyone loves to laud for its artistic merit and profundity but no one enjoys unless it stars Gandalf and Captain Jean Luc Picard), and this type of intensity requires a disproportionate amount of effort for such an informal setting. A gallant effort was made by the cast to make this awkward adaptation work and it was evident from this that the flaws were in the script.


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