The Tulip Tree

Wed 29th February – Sat 3rd March 2012

reviews

Rebecca Loxton

at 10:27 on 1st Mar 2012

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The Tulip Tree is one of four plays being performed at the Burton Taylor this week as part of Oxford University Drama Society’s New Writing Festival. The four scripts represent the best of Oxford’s fresh playwriting talent, having been selected by Telegraph Theatre Critic from a collection of 28 scripts which were submitted as part of a competition.

The Tulip Tree tells the story of a young Enoch Powell’s love for country-girl Barbara, whose interest in riding and proposal from another suitor appear to absorb most of her attention. Powell, before the notorious Rivers of Blood speech spotted his reputation and drowned his career, was known for being a shining Brigadier and the youngest professor of Ancient Greek. These biographical threads are weaved into the storyline as a reticent Powell is drawn into a discussion with two of his contemporaries about the recent war, and characterisation further build upon when he presents his beloved with an Ancient Greek text, in the hope of winning her heart. Barbara, however, is content to accept suitor Paul’s proposal, simply because, in her words, he is happy with life. His blissful ignorance marks a refreshing contrast with Powell’s dissatisfaction, in Barbara’s eyes. The future Powell’s radical political views are merely touched upon in the play, in which he comes across as a rather forlorn, love-sick young man who cannot resist penning tasteless verse. The plotline is moderately interesting if slightly dissatisfying; why write a play about the early life of this relatively minor figure in British politics?

Nonetheless, the play is well-acted, particularly by the two female leads, Nouran Koriem and Chloe Gale. The set is fittingly designed, a couple of paintings adorning the walls to lend an air of upper-class satisfaction to the room in the country house in which the action takes place.

This snippet of theatre, under an hour long, comes to a rather abrupt end, and would perhaps have benefited from the final scene not having been included. The play’s conclusion, in which amused husband Paul reads out a poem scribbled by Powell to Barbara, despite his wife’s faint pleas to ignore it, is rather weak, and somewhat waters down the impact of Barbara’s refusal of Powell, and her impassioned speech railing against Powell’s discontentment with the state of the world.

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Hyunwoo June Choo

at 11:52 on 1st Mar 2012

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Professor of Greek at age of 25. Youngest brigadier of the British Army. Cabinet minister, soon to be the prime minister. Sees the world in poetry. Has it all, he does not: neither can he tie a bowtie nor, more importantly, win the heart of his lady. Directed by Charlotte Goodman and eloquently written by Oliver Michell, The Tulip Tree reminds us that perhaps it really is the simple things in life that matters.

One of the four winning pieces in the OUDS New Writing Festival, The Tulip Tree provides a flashback to Enoch Powell’s (Matt Slomka) young love pursuit, and the failure thereof—a concept that has been foreign to his intellectually glamorous life. Powell courts a darling country girl Barbara Kennedy (Chole Gale), who cannot reciprocate the appreciation for showers of his esoteric love poems and archaic presents. Michell essentially fires the classic weapon society has against nerds: intelligence comes at the cost of happiness and social skills, and often people overlook the happiness factor in their blind march to success.

Though the theme may be common, Michell presents it magnificently, with poetry and witty humor seamlessly weaving in and out of the play. It is difficult to imagine that Slomka will be delivering the “Rivers of Blood” anytime soon; he draws empathy from the audiences despite the inherent human bitterness towards the overly fortunate. The suave immaturity of Powell’s mates, Edward Campion (James Phillips) and Paul Hawkins (Alex Sheppard), serves as both a comedic foil and representation of the norm. Put them together, they’re simply hilarious.

Every moment is simply delightful, though I feel the play lacked sufficient sophistication. By the time the cast gave their final bows, I was right along the audiences who wanted more. The story lacked the meat that the preview promised: Michell had not revealed the full effect of how this unrequited love weighs on Powell’s life, and whether his shift in perspective will impact his drive for success. Is there a twist? Will he find an equally intellectual counterpart who can gently caress the rhythms of his poem and chasse their lives through translations upon translations of Herodotus? Will he die as a tragic Byronic hero? The open ending was less artistic than was it incomplete.

There are also a few hasty assumptions which attaches to Powell’s identity as an intellect, which seems to suggest happiness and achievement are mutually exclusive. But I feel that this play is strikingly relevant to all of us, that, at the end of the day, echoes an important theme of defining value in life—presented in beautiful lyrical language and excellent cast (though not emphasized in this review, the leads were phenomenal! Playwright must have been very pleased). I thoroughly enjoyed this hour-long production, and left the Burton Taylor smiling.

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