Tag Archives: oxford

Tales from the King James Bible, at St Barnabas Church

due to the arts cuts the supporting actors were replaced with bed sheets

Everybody is sat in pews, hymns are playing in the background, and a huge cross is hanging in front of us. It’s not a church service that’s about to begin, but a theatre performance.  As the King James Bible celebrates its four hundredth birthday this month, tributes have been coming through in the form of documentaries, exhibitions, books, and now theatre. Creation Theatre, who previously put on a play in Blackwell’s bookshop and an island in the River Cherwell, took on the epic task of staging the Bible in Oxford’s St Barnabas church.


The Bible stories are told through the eyes of a couple that are suddenly exiled from their home. They retell the stories to answer the big questions: does God care?  Why does he let bad things happen to good people? And, was it really all Eve’s fault? The stories are told thematically rather than chronologically, in turn the couple move from being frustrated to comforted by the process.


From the start of the production actors Tom Peters and Raewyn Lippert both launch across the stage with the force of David’s stone for Goliath. They climb onto tables, cling to pillars, and jump into the pulpit. Everything is snappy and smooth, moving from silly to sentimental in seconds.


Creation Theatre have aimed high: they’re covering some of the best known stories in the world, staging them in just under ninety minutes, and with only two actors. The overall tone is the Reduced Shakespeare Company meets Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Sodom and Gomorrah is brought to life by puppets, Cain and Abel’s feud is retold in the style of a spaghetti western, and Moses’ life is delivered in limericks. Lines like “I’m going below deck to find Jonah, there’s something fishy about that lad” fill the script more than the language of the King James Bible. The crucifixion, however, is genuinely moving, using harsh white lighting on the actors freezing to recreate images of Christ’s suffering.


If you don’t know the basic Bible stories, this will be difficult to follow. The majority of the audience was elderly with no diversity, something the company should do more to change. Here’s hoping for a miracle.


To see or not to see: * * *

Doctor Faustus, at Blackwell Bookshop’s Norrington Room


faustus' attempt at a mexican wave was not well received by the audience

Creation Theatre have put on performances at the Oxford Castle, an island in the River Cherwell, and the Amphitheatre at the Said Business School. Now Blackwell bookshop’s Norrington Room is home to their latest offering, Doctor Faustus.


Blackwell’s Norrington Room has three miles of shelving, and has even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the largest single room selling books. The set immediately gets you in the mood: you enter the dimly lit basement, the audience surround the stage like a séance, and there are plenty of philosophy and theology books to flick through before the play even starts. It is the perfect location for our main character.


The play tells the story of Doctor Faustus, a scholar who has an insatiable thirst for learning. As he studies the dark arts he meets a servant of the devil, Mephistopheles, and offers his soul to the devil in exchange for absolute power. Christopher Marlowe’s text has been cut to make the play two hours long.


Gus Gallagher’s portrayal of Doctor Faustus is decent. His moral dilemma, however, is not convincing, and is hindered by the two masks that represent his conscience telling him to be good or evil. Gwnfor Jones’ plays Mephistopheles best in his moments of deadpan humour, and Alex Scott Fairley is enjoyable as the comical Pope.


The mix of sixteenth century and contemporary costumes, from Doctor Faustus’ renaissance clothes to the devil and his helper’s National Front-like get up of Doctor Martens and shaved heads, suggests that the devils live outside of time and can dress anachronistically. Director Charlotte Conquest’s five actors make excellent use of space. The staging is creative with actors leaping up through trap doors, disappearing through secret passages, and illusions such as living heads served up on silver platters. The tricks make the first half surprising and shocking, but are unfortunately overdone in the second half making it gimmicky and predictable.


The choreography takes pains, especially with the literal representation of the seven deadly sins: sloth being accompanied with lullaby music and gluttony with burping. A promising effort made more exciting by the stimulating venue.


Runs till 26 March.


To see or not to see: * * *

Spotlight: Max Hoehn, Actor and Director

Max is a part of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. He has just been awarded a first-class degree in History at Queen’s College, Oxford. He first came to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007 with ‘Danton’s Death’, and returns this year with an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. He has co-adapted the play with Raymond Blankenhorn, and also directed and acts in the work.


In Master and Margarita you play the Devil, what attracted you to the role?

The Devil in Master and margarita has one of the most famous openings in Russian literature. He’s full of wit, charm and flair. In other scenes he evolves into a grander, Milton-esque figure. Capturing the different parts he plays in the book while preserving a recognisable charisma has been one of the main challenges.


Jesus, Satan, and Pilate are the main characters in the play. How did your perception of these figures change over the course of adapting, rehearsing, and performing the play?

Jesus, Satan and Pilate are hugely important because we all have our own preconceptions about what they’re like. Bulgakov gives each of them a different, surprising twist. In casting and rehearsals I was keen to avoid any slide towards traditional portrayals of these characters. Pilate in Soviet uniform was an interpretive decision to suggest a link between Bulgakov’s Jerusalem and the Stalinist world and to avoid any iconographic spin on the scene.


You have adapted, directed, and are acting in the play. What did you gain from the experience?

Directing, acting and co-adapting the play has meant I’ve really invested a huge amount in it and that has helped me to be committed heart and soul to the project. It’s not something I’d repeat in the professional world but for the fringe you can just about get away with it.


What would you say to a young person about the Oxford University Dramatic Society’s Master and Margarita to encourage them to see it?

The production of Master and Margarita stays faithful to the spirit and complexity of the novel while also presenting it in as imaginative a way as possible to make it engaging for those who don’t know the book. We’ve toured Oxford and London to full houses and a lot of positive feedback, particularly from Russians. I think it’s a vibrant engaging story that deserves to be seen.


What other play at the Edinburgh fringe have you seen that you would recommend?

That’s easy, Derevo at the Pleasance is a Russian show by a company Harlekin and is by far the most powerful thing I’ve seen so far. Its combination of dance, mime, and circus tells a simple set of stories with great beauty and heart.

Master and Margarita, at the Edinburgh Fringe, runs from 16 August till 30 August.