Bede's
Bede's Senior Productions Wound with Intent
Martin Vaux, Teacher of English

This year’s double-bill of Bede’s senior productions represented a vivid change in tone.

As those who saw it will attest, last November’s production of The Crucible was a powerful, faithful take on Arthur Miller’s classic drama; a costume drama that followed in the footsteps of another, Oliver at Eastbourne’s Devonshire Park Theatre, which followed another, Great Expectations in 2016, before which there was yet another, in the form of Sondheim’s family favourite musical comedy, Into The Woods.

This year however, Bede’s Acting Director of Drama Sachin Choithramani set out to shake things up, breaking the pattern and looking to disturb. To achieve his goals, he offered not one but two alarming, brutal tales back-to-back. Stories of murder, deceit and innocence lost – if innocence was ever there in the first place.

DNA and Breathing Corpses are bleak, maudlin plays that probe taboos with glee. Both also contain multiple stories, each a portmanteau underpinned by trauma, abuse and the grotesque.

While they also elicited plenty of laughter, it was of the shocked, ironic variety. And suffice to say, there was not a waist-coated street urchin in sight!

It is unusual for school plays to come with content warnings, but these did – and the warnings were warranted. Both overflowed with adult themes, coarse language, and shocking violence. Neither looked to simulate a convincing reality either: they were symbolic, provocative, ambitious productions, and not the kind of dramas traditionally staged at schools.

Both contained thrilling, daring, exciting moments, and both will live long in the memory, much like the shocks so central to their storylines; these plays were about events not easily rationalised or forgotten, and those who attended are likely to have been wounded.

So much so, they will likely wear their scars long into the future…

DNA

Dennis Kelly’s DNA is a linear crime story that centres on a group of teenagers who have made a terrible error in judgment. The ensemble’s attempts to cover their tracks create more problems than they solve, making for a melancholy, nervy drama – and Bede’s take on the tale was excellent.

While the hour-long play was punctuated by staccato blackouts and a pulsing, fidgety electronic soundtrack, the set offered the most pleasing nod to its theme of fragmentation.

The performance space was split into three, an allusion perhaps to id, ego and superego, with a central rectangular platform comprising a woodland floor of grass, sticky woodchips and a triple-rent log. It was extraordinary. Less a zone of pastoral freedom than prison cell, and one of Mr Waring’s boldest designs in recent memory.

Central to the success of the production was Rosa Wescott’s Leah. Seemingly sweet, charmingly neurotic, hilariously dynamic, her performance was outstanding. While she reeled, soared and gambolled from delightful to horrid, her counterpart, Tom Haffenden’s Phil, was stationary, silent and seething.

While Leah was all about the outward, Phil was all about the inward, eating an endless procession of sweets that seemed tossed into the malevolent void of his hollow personality.

Phil and Leah’s affiliation was further reinforced visually, not least with Phil’s black and red outfit and t-shirt emblazoned with an outline of a bloody heart. This reinforced his heartlessness, implying that Phil’s compassion had been torn out and was wandering around as Leah, whose dark, floral dress alluded to her own shadowy nature.

Elsewhere in the cast, Izzy Sayer and Echo Abraham played Jan and Mae, two Goth teens who hung out under streetlamps offering rambling, pitch-perfect tranches of exposition. Sayer played a ditz with relish, always a step or three behind, while Abraham delivered her finest performance on a Bede’s stage to date – all flitting eyes, twisting lips, and fluid, husky tones.

While those two acted as a kind of Greek chorus, Jess Frisby was transformed into an angular, feisty, fatigued Lou, Jem Matthews a shaggy, grungy, bristling Richard, and Koko Jankowska a twitchy, jangling, imploding Danny; all three were bystanders, and all exuded a surfeit of attitude. Their talk of rotting teeth symbolised lost hope in anguished, macabre style, evoking well-earned laughs.

Four yet-smaller parts were absolutely fundamental to the triumph of the piece, however. Each had very limited time on stage, but each glowed like a hot coal.

Reuben Freer’s weird, tumbling, awkward John, Cara Hussey’s manic, grinning, trashy Cathy and Alice White’s weepy, hysterical, delirious Bree all spoke of the terrors of teenage caprice – giddy, unpredictable and terrifically wrong-headed.

Most powerful of all though, Aisling Cotter’s Adele was revelatory. While she had the least time in the limelight, her part provided DNA’s gut-punch. Caked in blood, rotten leaves and loamy filth, she was psychologically and physically torn, left ragged and abandoned. Both her appearance and performance were breath-taking, and huge praise must go to Ms Conlon and her team for their incredible hair, makeup and costume work.

A cautionary tale of children’s games gone wrong, lyrical, punchy and very funny, Bede’s production of DNA spoke powerfully of doom, fate and consequence; a story of identity with genuine character, it was not so much a pleasure to watch but a compulsive horror story from which it was impossible to look away.

Breathing Corpses

An elliptical, ambiguous, and fragmentary play, Breathing Corpses is made up of three broken stories, each snapped and bent into an unnatural configuration.

The trio of tales all centre on a different dead body, and it is easy to relate the narratives to their respective cadavers – one sprawled out under a winding sheet, one slashed to ribbons in a park, one stuffed tightly into a box and abandoned in a claustrophobic storage lock-up.

It is an incredibly ambitious play to stage with teenagers, both practically difficult and extremely provocative. Some of the language in the piece is designed to bludgeon, disgust and even numb, and that it did; it plumbed the depths of human behaviour and came up with a glinting, empty hook.

Conveying this hollow despair is no mean feat, and to confound things further the play’s opening sets out to wrong-foot. This deft, sweet start came care of Alyssia Smith’s Amy. Reminiscent of a young Victoria Wood, Smith’s performance was hilarious, full of gurns, facial tics and deft physical comedy; her character is an innocent, naïve and simple-minded, and if the play had a soul then hers was it.

In contrast, the final vignette of the drama, featuring Freddie Tuson, presented Amy’s counterpoint. Tuson’s Charlie was subtle, charming, smug and oblivious. A softly spoken, slinking performance, he gave an understated, affecting exploration of soullessness and creeping dread.

Nestled within this frame came Jim’s story, starring Evan Nayler, Esther Tuson and Robbie Cloke, and within that, at the heart of the Russian Doll, sat Kate’s story, played by Megan Hume and James Thompson.

The first of these tales presents a difficult arc. It explores trauma, and saw Nayler’s nice-guy father descend into a gibbering wreck. His blinky, restless performance was haunted by the powerful late-reveal of an omnipresent garage door, and relied heavily on a contrasting, bubbly, hilarious turn by Esther Tuson.

While Cloke’s friendly Ray presented a middle-ground between them, a lumbering, jocular yet useless presence, Tuson’s Elaine was trilling, rambling and vital. She presented us with an utterly believable mother whose empty nest and concern for her spiralling spouse felt painfully real amongst all the artifice.

Then, at the dark core of the drama, was the dead love between Megan Hume’s furious Kate and James Thompson’s boorish Ben. Their hateful dynamic was brooding, bitter and grotesque, incorporating a barrage of foul discourse, animal cruelty, and a stunning reveal of domestic abuse.

This particular moment drew gasps, and justifiably – it was a showy instant played for maximum impact. Praise must go to Hume however, who delivered a horrid, escalating performance. It was her villainy that made the scene work, and which left Thompson’s pottering boyfriend figuratively and literally dominated.

Amidst all of these challenging moments, it made sense that the set was blank, white and clinical – there was almost too much colour elsewhere. And yet, on closer inspection, tables, beds and countertops were revealed to be made of cardboard boxes and detritus masked in white paint.

It was intricate stuff, and with scenes chopping and changing, the set shifting and reconfiguring, dozens of props and plenty of oblique moments, the pace of the drama did slow. This space created room for reflection, and it was hard to shake the sense that the piece was a little fussy and somewhat convoluted.

Considering all of this, there is no faulting the ambitions of the Drama department, not least the play's co-director, Upper Sixth pupil Max Mason. An abstract, darting and peculiar exploration of trauma, Bede’s Breathing Corpses was replete with powerful moments, and offered a disfigured, deceitful, damaging piece of drama designed to bruise, bait and unsettle.

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