of the strengths of writer and director Hannah Chilver-Vaughan's Three Parallel Places from Iridal
Productions is that here we have no message play. The publicity material tells
us "it follows Ambrosia [the main character] on
her odyssey through three alternative universes", these being Earth,
Egalitaria ("where they feel an absolute absence of pain, instant
satisfaction in all endeavours and live in total equality" and Autocratia, apparently a version of hell and whose rulers are Omega and
Alpha (cute names, suggesting a continuum of untrammelled authority, not least
of sexual power, and putting me in mind of Dante's Nine Circles of Hell) as she
seeks meaning to her life.
I was expecting, perhaps erroneously, to encounter at least some discussion on stage of utopianism, both in a general sense of an idealised world and even possibly in a more specific discussion of associated topics like privately owned property, gender relations and methods of governance. While Ambrosia (Esme Sanders) did indeed very soon become dissatisfied with her bucolic life on this earth with her stolid farmer partner George (Jon Berry, a rather imposing stage presence with an authentically carrot-crunching brogue; and effective also in his later incarnation), and she did harbour expectations of a better life elsewhere, renouncing home and hearth to seek it out, yet the political philosophy of the piece remained muted. Again to quote the provided synopsis, "the play explores questions of good and evil, pleasure and pain, appearance versus truth". Well maybe, but this little list of paradoxes is both pretty broad and pretty vague. I think an audience might be better advised to shunt serious notions of politics and ethics into the sidings and instead climb aboard this train, paying only cursory heed to the destination board, and just enjoy the ride.
Ms Chilver-Vaughan told me beforehand that she'd firmed up her concept in the Spring, and there's evidence aplenty that this show has been prepared with a deal of love and care. Not content with writing and directing the drama, Ms Chilver-Vaughan has designed the set, the costumes and the props. I take my hat off to her for her energy and imagination. We sat round the action on three sides of a square, and the set is an attractive one, Earth being represented by a large square of artificial grass and a set of transparent plastic table and chairs. Above us hung artificial flowers – wistaria, roses, hydrangeas, sunflowers – all these elements creating an atmosphere neither precisely of our world, nor very alien. The sets Ambrosia and George appear, lit by strobe lights, he in anonymously workaday clothes, she in leggings and something silky and diaphanous. They joust a little, her dissatisfaction becomes apparent, she embarks on her quest and falls in with a pair of characters, Pars and Antipars (approximations of the duplex nature of man – or perhaps manifestations of dream and nightmare, or ego or id?).
The technical direction by James Kershaw was terrific: each of the dozen or more scenes was cleverly marked by lighting changes – from strobe to dazzling spots to penumbra or full dark lit by a torch, and on to scarlet filter illumination. The sound design offered us occasional music – I liked the use of a xylophone - of appropriately ambiguous genre, backed up by soothing water flow and birdsong. Costume design, predominantly in black, white and gold, added to the sense of timelessness. All these elements put to shame many a bigger OUDS show I've seen, ones boasting a much heftier budget.
Among the cast, evidently well-drilled though displaying the odd sign of first-night hesitancy, Esme Sanders as Ambrosia did well in bringing a little tart humour to her character ("Is that all that's on your mind? Aubergines?") and moved fluently. I'd also especially pick out Alex Blanc and Tesni Jones as Omega and Alpha, the dastardly rulers of Autocratia. He, curly-haired and emphatic of speech, brought a degree of menace to the proceedings, while Ms Jones developed cleverly from the possession of a giggly laugh and gushing voice to something more steely. I would also mention Lee Simmonds as Antipars; present only at the start and end of proceedings, but very nearly the stand-out performer. Mr Simmonds has the priceless gift of being able to take his time and appear to be doing little, yet still give out energy to the audience. He needs to be seen in bigger parts.
One might imagine that the Oxford student corps (and indeed the wider local theatre-going public) would be peckish if not downright hungry for experimental drama, particularly where it's conceived and written by an Oxford student. If they are looking for something possessing a strong linear narrative, they had best look elsewhere. If on the other hand they are prepared to be challenged and puzzled and carried along on a ripple of fantasy, then in their Three Parallel Places Ms Chilver-Vaughan and Mr Kershaw have between them created an original world, one that's likely to endure afterwards in the minds of their audience a good while longer than they might imagine when the lights go up.