Staging the centerpiece production of an already ambitious and growing Arts Festival at the Oxford Playhouse sets a high bar for anyone. If anything, that bar has been raised even higher by successful performances there over the last few years. Certainly the lofty ambitions of the Academy for these performances – to ‘develop the political imaginations and dramatic vocabulary of the pupils through epic theatre’ and to ‘explore difficult intellectual concepts through iconic works of literature’ - leave nothing on the field.
Epic theatre it was, and it continued the encouraging trend seen at the Arts Festival of Magdalen College School investing heavily in Drama, with concepts, production and execution of stagecraft at levels that are often missed even in professional productions. The students faithfully gave everything they had, on stage and behind, to create a true spectacle. Indeed, during the first five minutes I was gleefully imagining the Festival in five years, with continued investment and the undeniable talent in the ranks, becoming a centerpiece of the early Oxford summer for the wider public, not just those associated with the school – commercially viable, publicly renowned theatre that just happens to star and be staged, largely, by people who are still at school. Stevie Polywka embodied this sunny future with a phenomenal performance as Pelleas, his arc the most obviously ‘political’ of the twenty or so stories that were told. Albert McIntosh sang well and Hugh Tappin is crying out for a role as Samwise Gamgee after being Piggy last year and Sir Percival this. Vijay Hare’s arc was the most enjoyable, and I wish I could namecheck the girl who accompanied with him as her character was the only female role that had any chance to develop, but the cast list is twice as long that of Game of Thrones season four. Likewise the chorister who waited around all night to deliver a beautiful treble performance at the end – exceptionally well done, but I have no idea who you are.
Somewhere down the line, someone decided to shoehorn WWI into an already overly complex and difficult story, delivered almost entirely in dramatic verse. The only two WWI lessons that came to my mind were that a bad thing executed well, with good funding and with the best intentions, is still a bad thing; and that of adults sending copious numbers of young men out to do their bidding and sort of forgetting about the women. A school that educates young women could stand to have a play that passes the Brechdel test, or even just be more than a ‘harlot’ or ‘pure’. It made me angry, because there is such talent there, certainly vocal, and there were glimmers of acting when allowed, but the girls were used as window dressing for a confusing, confused ramble of a play, trying and failing to tell thirteen stories where three would have done, where you are told more than you are shown. The boys did well to deal with the ‘dramatic vocabulary’, but I don’t know that audiences will. If this festival is going to live up to the promise of the earlier years, it’s not enough just to show off the Drama department to parents and former pupils: you have to entice the public in.
Finally, this is the 2nd MCS play in 2 years with unnecessary gas mask dancing. It needs to stop.