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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

“Sharp humour with profound philosophical underpinnings”

Giovanni Musella looks ahead at a new production of Blavatsky's Tower

Patriarch and architect Hector Blavatsky lives with his family on the 25th floor of a tower block designed by himself. Apart from the eldest sister, the Blavatskys never leave their home. One day, the arrival of an outsider in the form of a doctor upsets the family’s unusual idyll.

Summarised in just a few sentences, the plot to Moira Buffini’s Blavatsky’s Tower nonetheless reveals its unique potential for suspense. This tantalisingly short synopsis, however, cannot do justice to the play’s ambitious thematic range, its admixture of a sharp sense of humour with profound philosophical underpinnings.

The play dramatizes the tensions that exist between the outer and inner worlds of the self; the intruding doctor, played by John Livesey, represents external society’s scientific and logical attitude, while the family members, several of whom experience visions of angels, are more in touch with the spiritual side of existence.

Playgoers interested in absurdist or existentialist theatre will find plenty to think about in Buffini’s play. By refusing the comforts of the outside world, Hector is said to have ‘devoted his life to suffering’, while his son Roland spends his days trying to ‘cope with the fact that the human race is an evolutionary failure’. The play does not commit the mistake of taking itself too seriously, however, and this pessimism is often comedic in its mundanity. The family’s refusal to use the lift instead of the stairs, part of their self-professed ‘responsibility to endure’, is a homespun parody on the lofty theme of penitence. But the Blavatskys’ determination to suffer comes at a huge cost, and the play bravely confronts the question of whether it is possible to live in constant darkness without succumbing to despair.

Opposed to this awareness lies the possibility of suppressing the suffering through convention: ‘routine is a great anaesthetic’, as Roland puts it. This line is a variation on Vladimir’s famous ‘habit is a great deadener’ in Waiting for Godot: Beckett’s influence is indeed pervasive throughout play. Nowhere is this clearer than in the character of Hector, the dominating but dying father who closely resembles Hamm in End Game. Both are blind, immobilised, and nearing death: both dominate while remaining dependent. Hector’s attempt at retaining authority appears in one scene as he orders Roland to kneel and proceeds to palpitate his son’s trembling face; his vulnerability is revealed a moment later when he pleads: ‘forgive me’.

The pace is fast and engaging throughout, the dramatic tension sustained by the ever-shifting balance of power relationships that the characters are involved in. The audience sees characters aspire for dominance at one moment, only to be pulled down by their vulnerabilities at the next. Madeleine Pollard displays both this authority and weakness in her convincing portrayal of eldest sibling Audrey Blavatsky. Proud of her role as the family’s breadwinner, and empowered by being their only member with access to the outside world, Audrey at first appears to be the most ‘normal’ of the group. As the play progresses, however, her own insecurities emerge, and her frustration at being unable to assume a position of authority threatens to break into violence.

Director Philippa Lawford’s production boasts several other strong performances. Marcus Knight-Adams is appropriately neurotic as Roland, combining a disturbing childish petulance with a savage sense of humour. He is forever writhing around the stage, tearing at his shirt and biting his nails in a realistic portrayal of a tortured yet sensitive mind. Louisa Iselin also impresses as youngest sister Ingrid: she succeeds in endowing her character, seemingly the most vulnerable and innocent in the play, with a steely and manipulative edge.

This rendition of Blavatsky’s Tower managed to excite and disturb even in the brightly lit Regent’s Park College rehearsal room, with the actors lacking costumes and props. This suggests both that meta-theatricality is an important dimension to Lawford’s direction, with the characters being literally bounded by the stage/house which they cannot escape, and that the actual production, which takes place next week at the Michael Pilch Studio, is one that will stay with the audience for a long time.

Blavatsky’s Tower will show at The Michael Pilch Studio, 26-29 April (Wednesday to Saturday of 1st Week). Tickets are £7 for students.

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