Features Festivals Published 9 April 2015

The Power of Words

Tim Bano and Catherine Love reflect on an inspiring week of student theatre in Scarborough.
Catherine Love

Catherine: Words are important, so let’s not waste them. 

Language – the words we use and how we use them – felt like a central concern at this year’s National Student Drama Festival. The first show of the week, Walrus Theatre’s Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, brought this theme to the fore. Sam Steiner’s play imagines a not-so-distant future in which all UK citizens have been reduced to a 140-word daily limit, making concision a way of life. Through a focus on just one couple, the play explores the implications.

The questions raised by Lemons lingered over the rest of the Festival. Who does language furnish with – or strip of – power? What responsibilities do words bring with them? When should things remain unsaid? And when words are limited (only a few left now), how do we choose to use them?

Tim: That preoccupation with words extended into two verbatim shows – FYSA’s The 56, which movingly wove testimonies of over 60 people into three narratives about the Bradford City Fire of 1985, and Durham University’s Congestion, which cast a suspicious eye over gender stereotypes and university lad culture through gender-reversed casting.

But exploring the power of words didn’t stop when the shows finished. The 56 and Congestion sparked a string of comment pieces in the festival magazine, Noises Off. A slew of young writers, artfully composing their own arrangements of words, thoroughly examined verbatim as a mode of expression – how can the writer edit testimonies with respect, how can actors portray real people without caricature?

And then there is the gulf between the spontaneous words of extemporised speech and the time and space that is afforded by writing those words down.

Catherine: In the heat of the moment, rather than behind the composure of the pen, words can wound and mislead. Our choices of language were raised several times during the Festival’s daily discussions, touching on what that language implies and who it might exclude.

During a Q&A session, Chris Thorpe – pushing against the careerism that has begun to pervade NSDF – suggested that phrases such as “hard work” and “aspiration” have been tainted by the current government, while Lucy Ellinson proposed a revival of the term “solidarity”.

One performance whose words caused heated debate, meanwhile, was Angry, its intent spelled out in its title. When setting out to cause offence, though, there’s always a question of how far is too far. For some, the language of prejudice is academic, but it’s vital to remember who is potentially being targeted and excluded.

Tim: Targeting and exclusion frequently came up in discussions, particularly in relation to race and gender (a whole afternoon devoted to discussing the necessity of quotas), and how easy it is to ignore imbalance in every step of the theatre-making process. Those involved in casting noted that there was a complete lack of diversity among those who auditioned if they did not explicitly state that all races would be considered.

But, while none of the plays explored issues of race, several of them challenged traditional gender binaries in various ways. This arose most unexpectedly in talking about Into The Woods. Does the musical punish its female characters for their sexual freedom?

Which played into a wider theme of intent: a musical, which may have been staged purely with the intent to entertain, cannot prevent audience members from finding important messages.

Catherine: Similarly, while UCL’s Classical Drama Society may have chosen a “no time, no space” approach to their version of The Bacchae, the production still raised questions about its contemporary relevance and resonance, particularly as it appears in the midst of a sudden deluge of Greek tragedy. Why do these plays speak to us today?

Other companies had thought more carefully about why now might be the right time for a particular revival. Manchester University’s Ransack Theatre proved The Dumb Waiter to be as tense and claustrophobic as ever, subtly casting Pinter’s enigmatic play as a comment on the controlling forces of modern capitalism.

And speaking of modern capitalism, it was fascinating to see a new production of Dennis Kelly’s The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas so soon after its Royal Court debut, showing that it’s never too soon for a reinvention.

Tim: One radical reinvention was Paperfinch’s explosion of The Nutcracker, taking over a huge house and leading audiences through secret doors to solve puzzles.

The house, which they’d spent days gutting and redecorating, was a microcosm of a microcosm: like NSDF itself, the show was a bubble of fun and co-operation, of effort and imagination, of exhilaration and dedication.

Because the festival was, possibly unwittingly, a miniaturised version of the country’s theatre ecology. In this strange building that butted onto Scarborough’s grey seas and skies was a community of extraordinary people absolutely committed to what they do and what they make.

The people who created shows, who wrote for Noises Off, who kept the discussions going in the bars and on the beaches, those who spoke and those who listened: they were, with all the potency the word deserves, inspiring.

Photo: Aenne Pallasca.

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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