Preview: Maurice

Thomas Idris Marquand 16 February 2020

When director Ell Aitken first told me that he intended to tackle this adaptation of the synonymous E.M. Forster classic, I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous for him.

Set in the early 20th century, ‘Maurice’ charts the turbulent journey to self-acceptance of the eponymous Cantabrigian, Maurice, who discovers that he’s an “unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort” in the fully and totally homophobic society of the time.

Image credit: Em Jones

The plot follows Maurice’s romantic awakening and his conflicted response to his identity. Forster treats us to what are essentially two parallel endings; Maurice and his lover Durham end up along two very different paths in their attempts to reconcile their sexuality with their society such that we, as an audience, are invited to consider how things might have been for one or the other.

Perhaps, you can see then why I, ever the pessimist, was somewhat apprehensive about this production. I arrived at this preview having watched a number of recent student productions which entirely failed to adequately deal with the challenging and complex subject matters they had tasked themselves with. Gay love stories are notoriously easy to get wrong and I worried this period piece would feel dated and unrelatable.

I was lucky enough to speak to Aitken before the rehearsal began. He explained his vision for the play as fundamentally the story of Maurice’s journey to find real acceptance and reassured me that the play would still feel relevant. Modern audiences would still relate to the Maurice’s emotional conflict and even to his experience at Cambridge (this university does seem to exist in something of a time glitch and it seems many aspects of the student experience are eternal).

Image credit: Charlie Bentley-Astor

This play is obviously important as a piece of LGBT+ history but it certainly isn’t constrained to niche appeal; Jesper Eriksson (playing Durham) aptly put it to me that the play “touches on universal themes” of balancing happiness with our innate desire to feel belonging. To some degree, I found the play asking (and perhaps answering) the question “What does it actually mean to be happy?”

In the world of Cambridge student theatre, I’ve come to expect a certain level of tonal confusion in the plays I see. However, I was very impressed by the teams adeptly smooth transitioning between emotionally darker and lighter scenes in a play that could very easily become either oppressively bleak or pompous and silly. Aitken thanked assistant director Charlie Bentley-Astor, in particular, for her part in maintaining the cohesive and consistent ebb and flow of tension throughout the production.

This was only a rehearsal and yet the performances were excellent. Although I overstepped my bounds by making a couple of suggestions to the director before I left, I only had very minor qualms. The audience’s very close proximity the performers places additional constraints on them on top of those typical of a distant stage. We are able to examine every move and expression of the characters very carefully.

Image credit: Em Jones

The actors must therefore pay especially close attention to their characterisation throughout, as the actors in this production did last night. I was particularly struck by one moment when Matthew Paul (playing Maurice) was stood so close I could see the tears welling up in his eyes. If they keep up this high level of attention to detail throughout, we’re in for a real treat.

The performative aspect I was most concerned about was the intimacy required between Maurice and his lovers. Aitken’s explanation of the rather austere and structured choreography that went into the intimate moments didn’t set my mind at ease.

However, any concern I had about overly robotic romance was dashed early in the rehearsal. The intimate moments were actually rather sweet and beautiful, somehow managing to straddle effortless and meaningful. This was a new theatrical lesson for me, that intimate scenes are better constructed than improvised so as to avoid them feeling awkward or uncomfortable.

Image credit: Charlie Bentley-Astor

I remain excited to see the complete design features of the play. Aitken has promised full period dress and, although I was not watching a dress rehearsal, the costume elements I did see seem fairly well polished. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I think the production team has some very savvy ideas for their set and the description I was given of the lighting sounds very sensible. In such an intimate space as the Corpus playroom, it is right that the performers should mostly speak for themselves, so I’m glad to hear that they won’t be overdoing it with the design elements.

In my conversations with Aitken and Paul, I pressed them to explain to me what challenges they’ve faced in creating this production. Paul, who is almost performing constantly throughout the entire play, has been tested somewhat in intellectual endurance (although in didn’t show) while Aitken described struggling to keep the play’s sometimes dated language relatable (which he has clearly managed to do).

I think it is widely held that a play is fine if it is entertaining but only excellent if it has the power to change the audience, perhaps emotionally or perhaps by making them reconsider some issue. The most brilliant plays ought to leave the audience with a paradigm shift. Watching this rehearsal, even my icy heart was moved at times.

Image credit: Charlie Bentley-Astor

I found myself thinking about my partner and other people I know, about decision I had made and some which I’m about to make, and I couldn’t help but consider Phillip Schofield and how things have and haven’t changed. I ask Eriksson how he thinks the audience can expect to be affected by the production. I think he was on to something when he told me that he hopes the audience leave feeling braver. If this play left me with any lasting thought, it was that we ought to take a leap sometimes for the sake of our happiness.

I hope you all find time to see this production at the Corpus Playroom. It would be a real shame to miss what will likely be a highlight of this year’s student theatre. For those with a particular interest in LGBT+ history, I would strongly recommend going along before the show on Wednesday for a pre-show discussion. The team have some really interesting insights into the context of the play.

Maurice is at Corpus Playroom, on Tuesday 18th to Saturday 20th February. Tickets are available from https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/maurice/