The paradox of this year's National Student Drama Festival was that such an enjoyable, energising week could be spent watching and discussing plays so uniformly bleak in their visions.
The Festival saw its most spacious and integrated location for some time. Scarborough Borough Council, joining main sponsors the Sunday Times and ITV, supplied the Spa Conference Centre as a performance venue, social hub and seat of workshops given by such professionals as actress/director Glen Walford, choreographer Struan Leslie, playwright Polly Teale, voice coach Terry Besson, Trestle theatre director John Wright, actress Fiona Shaw and director Phyllida Lloyd.
The productions, however, consistently articulated the oppression of the world beyond, and the ineffectuality of individual action against such atrocities. This tone was more palpable for the immediacy of its expression: of 16 productions selected, 11 were newly written or devised, the oldest extant work dating only from the 1960s.
The most damning indictment was Albert Innaurato's The Transfiguration Of Benno Blimpie (Bretton Hall College), a stream of prejudice and violence unleashed before the backdrop of Benno's grotesquely bloated body. Youth's rigours were explored more obliquely in the rite-of-passage parable of Birmingham Repertory Youth Workshop's Pinocchio, as the puppet-boy acquired humanity through being robbed of his illusions by constant exploitation. Pressures to conform were manifested also in John Godber's Bouncers (Increasingly Important Theatre Company, Oldham), in which the stereotypes were again put through their frustrating paces. Bretton Hall's devised No Tender Vocabulary attacked macho assumptions in a direct appeal to the virtue and necessity of physical, non-sexual male friendship – a play about men hugging, and among the week's most profound catalysts to self-examination.
One possible end to the conveyor-belt of role-stereotyping – prison – inspired both the Young Vic Young Company in Les Smith's Judging Billy Jones and Leicester Polytechnic's devised Rule 43 (Disappear Here). The former's stark depiction of a real event (the death in remand of a boy accused of child abuse) won the company an acting award for their ferocity of performance. Leicester, in contrast, used video clips and a series of pastiches to highlight the impossibility of talking usefully in the media about prison – even daring to leave the stage to the Prisoner: Cell Block H theme.
Major issues shaped several plays: the investigation of women's roles in Clare McIntyre's Low Level Panic won Hull University's Z Theatre Company the inaugural Smith College Award for young women's contribution to the Festival; Corkscrew Theatre Company from Bishop Grosseteste College, Lincoln, presented Blue by Michelle Jones, an account of one woman's burgeoning ecological consciousness at 65. The Coca-Cola Dragon was a musical attempt by Shelley High School, Huddersfield, to re-examine the Vietnam War, but relied more on eliciting resonances within the audience than powerful statements of its own.
The humorous vein comprised Bretton Hall's Neurotic Norman, a
brief fable using exaggerated mime, and a pair of blatantly escapist romps.
Corkscrew's Play For Yesterday (by James Saunders) and The Real
McCoy from Guernsey Youth Theatre, sent up British stiff-upper-lip
films and Chandlerian detective novels respectively, and Phil Higginson's
warm, knowing comic writing won him commendation for the latter play. Surrealist
head-scratching was represented by Lancaster
University's Zen assemblage Flesh And Bone which, while dramatically patchy, proved true to the "better to travel hopefully" spirit of Zen itself.
Morons, from Trinity School, Warwick, divided opinion most virulently: another exploration of the pressures of conformity and banality, it captivated by its icy intensity and alienated by its reckless solipsism in equal proportions – deservedly winning the company a performance award. Eric Prince's In The Ruins Of Song (North Riding College), a memory play as visually entrancing and atmospheric as Prince's previous work (Wildsea-Wildsea won him the Festival's playwriting award in 1988), though slighter, drew considerable flak for an incestuous attempted rape scene.
The most unambiguous success of the week came from Stranmillis College, Belfast: Making The Numbers Up spoke explicitly only of the repressions suffered by one family in a puritanically extreme Protestant sect, but laid bare a range of individual, family and social horrors with chilling and affecting power. The company swept the board: judges Robert Hewison, Phyllida Lloyd and Fiona Shaw gave a design award and a company award, and the separate panel of the major Royal Insurance Award for an outstanding overall contribution to the Festival (in production, discussion, workshops, technical effort and the Kodak-sponsored Festival magazine Noises Off) had no hesitation in presenting it to the Stranmillis company.
Given that a contingent from the college had first attended the Festival (as observers) only last year, the completeness of their success is testimony not only to their own skills but to the value of NSDF as a continuing hothouse for dramatic excellence.
Written for The Stage.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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