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Stand

Just past half-way through the Pulse Festival we were attending our fourth show. Stand had attracted my attention on three grounds: it's Oxford connection, the use of oral history, and the involvement of Chris Goode. I had never seen any of Goode's shows but I had read some of his texts and heard the enthusiasm of theatre buffs. The New Wolsey Studio was almost full as we slipped into seats just inside the entrance at the end of the front row. As the show began a cast of six entered from the auditorium and seated themselves on high stools beside each of which stood a lectern. Because each lecturn was stage left of the performer this formed a physical barrier between us and the actors. This might not have been a problem had the performances been more direct but it became apparent that most of the actors were reading most of their lines. This has to have been a directorial decision — an indicator of verbatim theatre; the show is not new; this would be at least its fourth run and some runs involved multiple performances. Reading scripts is a characteristic of works in progress but none of the promotional material or reviews of other runs mention such circumstances.

"It's not about me; it's about all the other people"* said Chris Goode in his opening line as a photographer who had been an early campaigner trying to save Castle Mill boatyard in Oxford's Jericho. I used that yard in the 1980s when we would moor a narrowboat in what was then Orchard Boatyard. None of this was made explicit in the performance (and it was not necessary to do so). On behalf of Oxford Playhouse, Goode had invited people to talk about a time in which they had stood up for something that they believed in. He chose six people whose stories particularly appealled to him and interviewed them in greater depth. I imagine that his interviews used the English oral history technique called 'life history' or 'whole life'. I can find no statement to support this but it is implicit in the inclusion of accounts of childhood with each story of adult activism.  Goode then selected highlights from these interviews and wove them into a show lasting just over an hour. Although none of the interviewees are identified by name, there is enough personal information remaining to be able to identify them with only limited research. This lends the accounts a powerful authenticity; this is a show about real people speaking in their own words. Was this why Goode chose the conceit of obvious reading? Did he wish to emphasise that this was actors reporting the speech of the subjects? In his own performance he varied between natural speech and sometimes hesitant reading with the occasional stumble. I still cannot tell whether this was cunning artifice or inadequate rehearsal although I favour the former explanation given his undoubted deep familiarity with the material.

My confusion was exacerbated in the variety of delivery styles by the cast. The most engaging performance was that of the woman playing the part of a co-founder of Oxford's bicycle repair co-op Broken Spoke, who had come to activism through fracking opposition and climate change awareness. Her stories were funny but, more importantly, she delivered her speeches naturally with no reference to the script. Similarly authentic was the performance of the young actor playing an actor who co-founded the Reclaim Shakespeare Company (whose rebranding as 'BP or not BP' makes clear it's opposition to BP's involvement in the arts) and for our benefit reprised their first anarcho-thespian demonstration against BP as an agent of climate change.

All six characters were telling stories that interested me. An 82-year-old animal activist described the spirituality that motivated his lifelong campaigning and his involvement in SPEAK, the group opposed to animal research at Oxford University. A middle-aged woman explained how she had moved from agnomic rebellion to local government and advocacy for refugees. The anomalous character among these avowed activists was a mother who had come to tell the story of an action by her adopted daughter but in so doing revealed the touching story of her adoption of this Russian orphan. This intimate story made the important point that effective action is not confined to campaigning; the very way that we lead our lives can improve the world.

Not all the stories had upbeat endings but their combined effect was affirming. The source material is heart-warming and my only criticism is that the staging of this well-crafted tapestry obscured its value. As we entered the auditorium for the next show, a man ahead of us asked wearily "Are we going to be read to again?" I had to sympathise.

*Or something very like this.

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grin

September 2015

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