One would be hard-pressed to argue that the BT Studio is suited to expansive, elaborate shows, given that it has the floor area of a broom cupboard and the technical sophistication of a child’s puppet theatre. No, the BT is ideal for less aesthetically ambitious productions. It is an intimate, atmospheric space, Oxford’s equivalent of the Bush Theatre if you will, in which audience and actors can immerse themselves in a shared experience and engage in stimulating artistic dialogue. When it’s done well, that is.
It is this intimate quality that Sam Ward, an established face in Oxford drama, hopes to finesse with his latest directorial effort, Martin Crimp’s The Country, which starts its run on Tuesday. It is hard to imagine a play more suited to the BT than Crimp’s tense, three-handed thriller. A masterfully conceived exploration of trust and deception, it presents the gradual unravelling of a couple’s bucolic dream with an engaging deftness.
Richard (Nicholas Finerty) and Corinne (Phoebe Hames) have left the city in search of a peaceful, pastoral idyll. This fragile reality is shattered when, in the middle of the night, Richard brings home a girl (Gráinne O’Mahoney) he claims to have found unconscious at the side of the road. The girl’s identity and her relationship to Richard are slowly exposed through revelation after revelation, engendering an escalating atmosphere of tension and intrigue.
I meet Ward, Finerty and O’Mahoney in LMH’s Old Library, a spacious, columned room entirely unlike the BT, but nevertheless utilised as a rehearsal space. After witnessing some rehearsals, I ask Ward why he wanted to put on The Country.
“I saw the play six years ago at the Salisbury Playhouse”, he tells me, “and, although the acting was dire, I was struck by its potential. I remember thinking that it was a great play, but that I could have done it so much better.”
“I reread it recently and, technically, itis one of the best play’s I have ever come across. Every line is so carefully chosen. Every scene is so carefully constructed. It’s obviously written by someone who knows how people interact and I’ve wanted to do a play like that for ages.”
To perform a play with such vibrant humanity requires realistic characters and to achieve this, Ward has ensured the cast adopt an almost Stanislavskian approach to their roles, instructing them to discern the motivations behind their actions, and allowing them to inform their performance.
“Before we run through scenes, we establish what each character’s objective is and how it develops”, he explains. “Once these objectives have been established, we improvise the scenes based around them. I never tell them where to move or how to deliver lines.”
Convincing interaction between characters is also essential to conveying believable emotion and Ward emphasises the importance of listening, both physically and verbally, in this.
“We’ve done exercises that involve watching each other’s weight distribution and watching each others micro-movements, then making an assessment of response based on that. We’ve also done improvisations where each response is informed by a particular word in the preceding line, all to ensure that everyone is really listening to each other.”
I ask Finerty and O’Mahoney if they feel that their performances are enhanced by such a diligent, concentrated approach.
“It has been really helpful in providing a foundation to the rest of my performance”, O’Mahoney tells me. “For me, the text is key. Each word is so important. They inform what you’re going to pick up on and that feeds really well into this type of improvisation.”
“It’s really exciting”, enthuses Finerty. “Because it’s not prescriptively directed, we know there are peaks and falls in the scene, but they come in slightly different places depending on how the scene develops, and how each line is spoken and responded to. It’s different every night.”
From the rehearsals I see, the approach Ward has utilised is undoubtedly conducive to engaging, convincing performances. LMH’s Old Library is not a particularly atmospheric room, but the air is tangibly charged with emotion as Finerty and O’Mahoney go through a particularly dramatic scene. I can imagine the BT being almost electric with tension.
But for Ward, it is not just the performances that are integral to creating this edge-of-your-seat atmosphere. The staging is also significant, as is the evocative texture of the set.
“The stage will be thrust so the audience will be on three sides”, he explains. “When the stage is thrust, the audience gets sucked in and they become part of the action. It’s especially appropriate staging here as the characters are always so conscious of being watched, and the intimacy of the audience builds on that.”
“Materials are also very important in the play. Wood and flesh are very prominent. So it’s important to get an earthy, grounded, visceral feel, which will give a real sense of rising dread.”
The strength of Ward’s vision is evident, but for the play to be genuinely memorable, it requires intense concentration and commitment from the cast. Only then will convincing character interaction be crystallised on stage, only then will justice be done to Crimp’s impactful writing, only then will the audience leave mopping tension-induced sweat from their brow, and only then will the BT’s potential for striking, intimate drama be fulfilled.