The Aleph

Tue 5th – Sat 9th February 2013

reviews

Rosie Oxbury

at 22:43 on 5th Feb 2013

2agrees

0disagrees

I admit I didn’t have high expectations for The Aleph: I haven’t read the Jorge Luis Borges story on which it is based, and from the blurb, the play sounded like some kind of action story or spy thriller. Which it sort of was: it fell somewhere between fantasy or sci-fi and espionage novel – not usually my cup of tea. But somehow it managed to retain all the attractions of those genres – suspense, intrigue and a really delicious plot – even as it presented something a good deal more serious.

The opening I found a little awkward. At moments there was a hint of nerves in the acting, and the audience was in such close proximity to the actors as to make the naturalistic style of performance a bit incongruous – I almost mistook a pair of latecomers for additional characters. Right from the off, however, the acting was good all round (the Colonel, played by Josh Wilce, in the first scene was so convincing that I assumed he must be one of the central characters) and it only got better as the play went on. My two chief criteria in watching any piece of drama, on screen or on stage, are a good script and good acting, and The Aleph had both. Excellent acting was fuelled by an outstanding script. Some lines were breathtaking – Junks’s (played by Alex Wood) description of a peculiar light as like oil floating in water (trust me, when he said it, it was good) springs to mind, but there were others. More than that, every word that passed between the actors felt natural – you wouldn’t pause to think of them saying it any other way.

As I have said, the acting was not perfect – but for a student production, it was good. I was drawn in by every movement of every actor’s face. The smallness of the theatre helped in creating an atmosphere and sparking sympathy between audience and characters; it was more like watching a TV drama than going to see a play. You really forgot that you were in a theatre: only when the lights came up at the end did it become clear how baking hot and stuffy the theatre had become, and that we had just watched a group of students supported by very little in the way of set, costume or props. It was here that the use of sound effects came in: when you heard a train, you were on a train; when you heard wind blowing, you were up a mountain. The audience was transfixed, and when there was action taking place at floor level – Captain Evans (played by Will Law) stooping to empathise with a wounded spy (played by Lizhi Howard), or Junks (Alex Wood) cowering from the Aleph – all heads craned to see it.

Any complaints? The end felt rather sudden and unexpected. But perhaps I just didn’t quite understand it – all the more reason to go and see it a second time round.

agree
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James Roscoe

at 09:46 on 6th Feb 2013

0agrees

5disagrees

The Aleph promised to be a delightful piece of drama. My latest experience of an Oxonian written play had succeeded in fully restoring my faith in original, innovative and modern theatre, indeed the Burton Taylor’s most recent showing (They Will Be Red) was a veritable masterpiece that provided the audience with an astonishing evening of inspirational theatricality. Thus Eli Keren’s new script offered an exciting prospect. His taste in muse was as tantalizing as it was exhilarating, for the beauty and complexity of Borges’ short story is well celebrated and indeed troubles critics to this day; not only do they seek to decipher the author’s combination of fantasy, realism, magic and science, but they ceaselessly question how it never earned the philosophical author a Nobel prize. The transposition of such a work from page to stage was an audacious idea.

If you are wondering why I have indulged in such a lengthy, wordy, voluble, garrulous and loquacious introduction, it is because I have always considered myself to be a gracious and appreciative theatre goer. In fact, I am tempted to continue what could easily have turned into an appraisal of Borges’ literature, and I am sure that the end result would be a more pleasing read than what is to follow. But, unfortunately, I cannot avoid the subject in hand and I can only say that Keren must surely be added to the list of figures responsible for the otherwise inexcusable omission of Borges from literature’s hall of fame. His nursery school script filled with predictable dialogue and recognisable characterisation unfortunately belongs to the Scandinavian tradition that Borges so lamented.

The criticism cannot lie solely on the shoulders of a brave playwright, for he was left out in the cold on what was a bitter and unbearably long Oxford evening. The stage consisted of three black blocks that were noisily manoeuvred, pushed, pulled and thrown across stage to represent various settings, a set that was reminiscent of an innovative 1930’s mime act. The lighting had the two settings of off and on, offering an effective contrast, and whilst the one setting of brilliantly white light rather fittingly, and usefully, illuminated the theatre’s clock with a finery reminiscent of Borges’ artistic technique, I find it hard to believe this was the designer’s intention. The costumes were haphazard and lacked any cohesion, the presence of toy guns and plastic knives actually became rather insulting and the introduction of a couple of cans of Strongbow was simply baffling.

Needless to say the banal acting and prosaic character development was little better. I could hear little of what they were mumbling in-between their unpleasant shouting and could see even less of what they were doing; I was exceptionally uncomfortably seated no more than 2 metres away from centre stage in a cramped second row.

At one point my heart began to pound and my cheeks reddened as I considered that I may have missed the point of this play from the start. Could this be nothing but a thinly veiled parody of contemporary student theatre? As the lighting technician flicked the lights on for a final time and the actors bowed enthusiastically I sighed in the realisation that in fact this play was genuine.

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Comments

Francesca Petrizzo; 6th Feb 2013; 15:32:14

I do not think James's review is at all well constructed. We do not really get a criticism of the show, as most of it is taken up with a very pretentious dissertation on who Borges is and how we should relate to him. I also find it incredibly unfair that he chose to complain about the fact that there is a clock on the wall, and that it is late. The clock is the BT's responsibility and no, they can't remove it because they function according to strict slots. Focusing on it is bizarre.

And while I have used a big word, I shall continue to say that it is nothing short of hilarious to read a review that feels the need to exhaust a thesaurus of Ye Little Known Adjectives to show us just how clever the reviewer is. We're all at Oxford, James. We get it. We're clever. Let's get over ourselves.

Finally, I will say once more that this website is an excellent occasion for peer-reviewed theatre, but sometimes, as in this case (even though James is by no means the biggest offender in this) it becomes the mouthpiece for would-be critics who seem to think what we want is an expose of their inner theatrical philosophy.

As a thesp and a theatre goer, I appreciate much more an honest, direct review like Rosie's, which tells me what's good, what's bad, and what the show is all about. I am interested in the show, not in what the reviewer thinks of Borges.

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