Those who believe that the prime study for men and women is man and woman him/herself, will have found material aplenty in Jonny Wiles' No Man Ever at the Old Fire Station on Tuesday evening. Jonny has written and produced an intense psycho-drama, one about as stark and minimalist as can be.
Our four actors are ever-present, for the most part involved in the action but sometimes standing - either observing, in intensity rather in the manner of Auguste Rodin's The Thinker (though not in literal pose) or just witnessing the action, or else sitting like a coiled spring just at hand in the audience, ready to burst once more upon the action. Lighting was bright but, I think, unchanging (of course deliberately so) and costumes were workaday and unremarkable, at a guess chosen by the actors themselves with little external advice. The action, alternately simmering and boiling, put me in mind of Strindberg's Miss Julie (1888) and Dance of Death I and II (1900) and then of Friedrich Durenmatt in his Play Strindberg (1968). It went on all but within touching distance of the majority of the audience as we sat on three sides of a rectangle. So this was theatre stripped back to bone and sinew, all fat and gristle removed.
The theme here concerned the struggles of four young people of, to an extent, uncertain and anyway shifting gender to meet, connect and endure in relationships. And these struggles were set against the frequently-quoted presence of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and of Sonnet 116 in particular:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds....
If this be error and upon me prov'd,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.
which to my shame I failed to identify until pointed to it by Jonny Wiles afterwards. Jonny's thoughtful script was written in its original form before even he became a student, and was the obvious fruit of careful human observation very unusual in a young person. It had our quartet investigating the difference between romance and sex, and finding impediments galore to a meeting of minds as they tripped over and tried to resolve complications of personality and also degrees of both selfishness and selflessness.
I thought the language of the script was arranged to try to combine the romantic longing of this and other sonnets with the tough logic underpinning them, and did so very well. While the constant employing of 'fuck/fucking' as both expletive and adjective was to some extent justified in this case by the mining of this dual aspect, nevertheless it was overused, and in student productions it becomes wearisome and a distraction given that its shock value dwindled away decades ago and it can seem today little more than a fig-leaf hiding poverty of invention.
The acting here was direct, forceful but nuanced, honed over a four-week period under the direction of Rosa Garland; excellent because she got her cast both moving naturally but neither too little nor too much, and emoting with variation, without a surfeit of shouting. She cleverly had the action passing from character to character in shifting duos like fencers in a match armed with epées.
I didn't know Callum Coghlan as 'A' ('Books and people aren't the same thing') but he lost nothing in comparison with the other three, all on the current Oxford student drama 'class A' list. Cameron Spain ('I'm not having sex until I learn this poem!') who played a sleazy lads' mag editor just the other day in NSFW could easily as 'B' have dominated the playing space with his power-seeking and attempts to squash dissent, but the others handled with aplomb the histrionics of his character. Marcus Knight-Adams ('C', low-key, intense), one of the best student actors I've seen in the last two or three years, is equally at home ladling out open-handed charm and dispensing menace in a rasping voice. Miranda Mackay ('That's what people do, they drift in and out'), who sat next to me before and at the start of the piece and was giving out energy even then, as 'D' bubbled with longing to connect. Her playing of what could have been awkward lovemaking on the floor after five minutes was tenderly done, as was her demonstration of generous patience and forgiving. I understood her to say that she won't be much involved in drama next year. Can such a thing be?