Review: Festival of New Writing

Joe Richards 10 March 2017

Festival director Isaac Jordan opened the first night of the Downing Festival of New Writing by informing the audience that this was the biggest year so far for the festival, with over 40 submissions whittled down to the best 10. Last night saw three of those take to the stage of the Howard Theatre.

The first of the three dramas of the night, Beatriz Santos’ Oedipus Rex, was a rather riddling affair: it was a modern reimagining of Oedipus but one which included Hamlet-esque skulls, Macbeth-esque witches, Auden-esque orderings to “Stop the clocks”, and baguette set dressing — all set to a bleak whistling of wind. Oedipus enters onto the maidens with a copy of Oedipus Rex in hand and knows that he could read it and find out his destiny but chooses not to — why? I think the intention was perhaps to say something about predestination — about being trapped inside one’s own story with the power to change the track but preferring to remain passive — but it was never quite clear what the ‘something’ it wanted to say was.

On a micro-level, however, the writing was stunning: mellifluous, musical and with an excellent grasp on rhythm. The performances too were very strong: Oliver Jones was a compelling Oedipus, Anna Moody, Kate Collins and Francesca Bertoletti were all very strong as the enigmatic sphinxes/witches/maidens, and particular mention must go to Ruby Morris who gave a very competent performance as a grieving Jocasta. The difficulties of the play lay largely with the writing: this is not to say that it was bad, in fact it was very good, but — as the judges highlighted — more attention given to the larger picture during the writing process would have made for a more rewarding piece.

Isla Cowan’s Waiting was the second of the offerings, and was by far the most developed and sophisticated; it saw Kelly, a ruthless career woman deliver a monologue to the audience as she waited for her boss in a restaurant. Over the course of the monologue, it was revealed that Kelly was childless (she stressed that this was by choice, despite her several miscarriages) with a “career”, not a “job”, that she had recently become estranged from “the girls” — gossipy ladies who lunch —whom she scorned for their “polly-pocket lives”, and that she and her husband had split up because she had slept with her boss’s seventeen year old son. As she drained a bottle of wine, the text tracked her dissatisfactions, highlighted her insecurities, and elucidated some of her very human quirks.

The brevity of this synopsis does a disservice to what was a really excellent script, full of wit and subtlety: its emotional complexity and nuance would have rendered it disastrous in the wrong performer’s hands, but Isla Iago’s performance was astonishingly capable — she fully embraced Kelly’s awfulness but also her pathos leading to a brilliantly refined portrayal of a challenging character. The joy and horror of the piece was, in a paraphrasing of Cowan’s own eloquent discussion in the Q&A, that we could all see some of Kelly in ourselves: Cowan’s drama makes us both feel akin to Kelly and squirm at the fact that we do.

The final piece of the night was Eloise Poulton’s Abba, mamma. The most experimental with theatrical form, incorporating both elements of movement and haunting musical scene transitions, it was evident that Poulton was, in her own words, “primarily a director”: this made for a visually engaging piece which navigated the difficulties of parental relationships, focusing on the development of three mother-daughter pairings in spliced scenes. The play opened with a well-choreographed physical theatre sequence which transitioned into the first dialogic scene between Kat Cussons and Carina Harford — as they movingly and humorously discussed the “back eyes” which children have, they continued to move in choreographed unison, a feature which would have been pleasing to see maintained in some capacity throughout.

A highlight of the night was Carina Harford’s monologue discussing how she had resolved not to have children: whilst it felt a little at odds with the style of the rest, the direct address to the audience was evocative and emotional, and Harford’s acting style was unique and highly engaging. One complaint would be that a few of the characters felt a little underdeveloped: Elinor Lipman’s mother, for example, never got enough stage time for us to properly understand her — indeed, that relationship generally seems to have been neglected in comparison with the other two. Overall, however, competent performances and a good grasp of how to evoke emotion in writing made for a strong piece.

What can be said for all three pieces is that for first drafts, these were incredibly impressive and promising efforts, which speak volumes for the talents of Cambridge’s new writers. If the other seven pieces come even close to matching the standard of last night’s offering, then the rest of the festival looks certain to be something not to be missed.