Walking into a small studio of the ADC on a Sunday afternoon, the title given to the four short plays about to be performed – ‘Naked Stage’ – becomes immediately self-explanatory. The stage is, indeed, almost entirely bare, stripped to three chairs, a small table, and a black curtain that can be pulled around the circumference of the stage. You may, at this point, be forgiven for wondering whether any other aspects of the title come into play during the performance (nudity?) and what, exactly, ‘Naked Stage’ is.
‘Naked Stage’ is produced by Cambridge’s open scriptwriting forum ‘WRiTEON!’, constituting this year of a season of briefly rehearsed performances of brand new plays by local writers. These pieces are all presented as work in progress, performed each week by actors with the script in hand, and grouped around a particular focal theme. Following the performance is an optional feedback session in which the audience is invited to share their impressions not only with each other but also with the actors and writers themselves, who remain in the room during this time.
As each week features an entirely different group of plays (there are a total of nineteen, all by different writers, to be performed this season), a review of the first week will, inevitably, be far from representative of the season. Rather than focusing too heavily upon each individual piece, therefore, it may instead by more productive to consider the way in which each performance engaged with the stated theme of imprisonment.
The opening and closing plays – ‘Dave and Norman’ and ‘Cuckoo’ – emphasised imprisonment as a form of psychological confinement, employing disparate theatre techniques in order to do so. Whilst the first play featured neutral lighting and no music effects – a minimalistic approach that focused audience attention on script and was sustained by the other two plays preceding the last – the fourth performance constantly dimmed its lighting, at times fading into complete darkness, and made comparatively extensive use of sound effects (most memorably at its conclusion, when an extract of classical music was interrupted by the sound of shattering glass). This was less effective, however, than the concentration of the first play upon dialogue and the use of silence in order to evince a family dynamic fraught with tension and suggestive of the difficulty of communication.
The other two plays – ‘Every Vote Counts’ and ‘Staying at Dr Brown’s’ – broached the topic of imprisonment from very different angles, although both emphasised its literal sense. ‘Every Vote Counts’ presented a marked moment of levity within the sequence of the four plays, noting with humour our entrapment within a British culture excessively swayed by reality television and probing, in a tentatively comic manner, the nature of imprisonment, with one character noting the seeming benefits of the modern prison system (‘Sky TV’, ‘library privileges’). ‘Staying at Dr Brown’s’ – in which an English teacher/lecturer holds his student hostage in his basement – similarly explored the idea of complicit confinement, with Genevieve Cleghorn and Vaughan Allanson delivering strong performances in their creation of a relationship in which the possibility of reciprocity in the teacher’s erotic desire of his student lingers throughout the play.
For those interested in creative writing – whether prose or drama – ‘Naked Stage’ affords a good opportunity to see play-writing and performing in its process of development. The individual plays are, at their best, thought-provoking and suggestive of potential for development into longer pieces with fuller exposition and character development. These plays are not intended to be polished performances by any means and, as the audience feedback of the night implied, there was a varying degree of room for improvement within each play, notably in terms of editing material in the script to avoid repetition or to create a more powerful ending. However, the apparent familiarity of the actors with the script (with some, notably Stephen Kantor in ‘Every Vote Counts’, hardly even glancing at the script at all), alongside their active participation in the feedback session with the audience, suggests that the cast is involved in the shaping of the ideas underlying their play and that careful thought is given to each individual performance.