This is the fifteenth year of the International Kenneth Branagh Award for New Drama Writing and the finals night on Saturday 6th October was a sell-out. Karen Darville, the Windsor Fringe Chair, introduced the three winning scripts received from 301 submissions from 24 countries which had been evaluated anonymously by 45 readers and then short-listed to ten for the two judges, Joan Lane and Pete Gallagher to adjudicate. This is a prestigious event that gives new writers an unparalleled opportunity to work with professional directors and actors to bring to life their texts in front of an audience of over three hundred people.
This year’s three short listed plays provided a superb and varied evening’s entertainment and were, indeed, worthy finalists. All the performances reflected the professional expertise of the directors and actors and, more importantly, demonstrated different dimensions of writing flair. Waiting for Hamlet written by David Visick for two characters, a king and a fool occupying a stylistic space, is, as Peter Gallagher noted, “borne of a love for the source material and perhaps an equal love of Stoppard-esque wordsmiths!” The Claykickers Chorus, written by Kevin McMahon for three performers, is an utterly original and profoundly successful dramatization in iambic verse and physical theatre of a little-known group of actors in the First World War. Cut and Paste, written by Jeff Nolan is a parody of political hubris and ruthless ambition, performed by two lead actors with two supporting.
Waiting for Hamlet, opens with a person lying on a box and another person part way up a step ladder. The play is essentially a dialogue between a dead, (the D word,) king who is caught in-between Heaven and Hell, and a Fool who is a sort of all-knowing gatekeeper of the entrances and exits into and out of this nether world. The nature of this place is mostly established by the dialogue and the acting but also supported by lighting and sound effects.
At the beginning of the play this all works well, and we are then shifted into an understanding of who this king is: the murdered father of Hamlet, who appears as a ghost in the Shakespeare play. From here on any audience members who are not familiar with Hamlet may struggle to understand what is happening and perhaps, more importantly, whether this play is trying to say something about Hamlet’s father’s ghost, which is a figure of much conjecture amongst scholars of Shakespeare, or whether it is more about the nature of life and death and the legacy that we leave behind, whatever our station in life. It resolves into being more the latter but for several audience members around me the point was lost from about half way through the play. Indeed, someone told me that they had seen it on all three nights and were still unsure of what it was about and what it was trying to say. Peter Gallagher in his judgement says, ”… it is a play that deals with possibly the finest example of dramatic text ever, coupled with an uncomfortable and reluctantly valued relationship alongside exploration of inner demons, is actually so much more relevant [to universal issues] – it has taken itself back to a place of story-telling coupled with a bigger message for discussion and analysis…”
For its success in performance, Waiting for Hamlet requires as the other judge, Joan Lane noted, strong characterisations and an effective relationship between the two actors. Those conditions are only partially met. Elizabeth George is a wonderfully impish fool with a total command of facial expression, movement and vocal range. She glides and hops around the acting area with effortless ease. We believe she is the fool and, when referred to as Yorick she is given a further dimension of existence. Edmund Dehn as the king is an effective tormented figure who provides dramatic tension through his continuous desire to leave. That said, everything feels a little forced and one dimensional. In the rapid-fire interchanges with Elizabeth he is perhaps a little too sharp on the cue bite not allowing a half a beat to respond to her expression and timing.
Paula Chitty, the director, succeeds in producing a piece of compelling theatre which was certainly a hit with the partisan sections of the audience. Joan Lane makes some interesting comments about the unlimited possibilities of staging and direction and, given its status as winner of this award, will no doubt be performed elsewhere in the future.
The second play performed on the night was The Claykickers’s Chorus. It was a triumph, as the judge, Joan Lane anticipated it could be in her comments. We are presented with three young actors stripped to their vests who immediately take us into their world of digging, bagging and transporting. They have only a stick, a bag, a trolley and three stools but they use them to spectacular effect in as good a piece of physical theatre as you could imagine. Direction is by Amanda Noar who has provided exactly the response to the script anticipated by Joan Lane. The three actors, Reece Richardson, Simon Pontin and Jordan Turk work together in a polished team effort that still allows their individual personalities to shine through. It seems invidious to pick out any one actor, but both the writing and the clarity of diction and movement make Reese Richardson’s character stand out. His is a sort of narrator’s role. He drives the story line, but a brilliant feature of the direction is that we are always ready for a new actor to speak through their positioning and movement.
The play is a work of extraordinary poignancy written by Kevin McMahon. He has used iambic pentameter to establish a rhythm to the piece that both allows the language to sing but also to inspire a wide range of movement and percussion. I imagine that rehearsal must have been an exciting creative effort between actors and director. Few in the audience would have heard of the existence of these mole-like warriors whose only training was in their mining trade. We are taken into their world full of inherent danger with the added dimension of underground encounters with “the hun”.
Lighting and sound are used very cleverly but the focus is mesmerizingly always on the actors. The space is used to great effect and I imagine that the patterns formed must have been even more impressive from the upper rows of this amazing Old Court auditorium.
Peter Gallagher, in his comments, seemed to have a problem with the apparently limited use of the options within iambic pentameter but at the same time he cited some good examples of it working (and indeed missed examples of the ‘feminine ending’ including the opening line.) He also wanted there to be more vernacular conversation and humour between these working men transported into an alien world. Joan Lane considered that the Mancunian accents were sufficient to evoke their background and, indeed, the variations of accent and personality provided in this production were all that was required to my ear. Joan went on to say that she would like to see this play extended to a full-length play.
The final play was Cut and Paste by Jeff Nolan and it provided a complete change of gear. It opens with two characters pointing out people in the audience to be put on a list. The man is immediately established as a bully as he treats the woman with contempt. It become clear that their relationship is that between a Prime Minister and his assistant. What follows is an endless paranoid rant about all the pressures upon him. To begin with it seems serious but it becomes clear that this is supposed to be funny and finally the audience realises that this is a parody of self-serving politicians. Once the parody convention is established the play takes off. I feel there may be something to be done with direction to establish the convention sooner or it may be in the writing.
The part of the Prime Minister is a fantastic opportunity for a powerful actor who can play a range of behaviours within an essentially comedic context. Edwin Flay reminds me of Robert Lindsay as he gives the outstanding individual performance of the evening. He is evil, manipulative, predatory, a coward, a bully, a sex pest – you name it. His assistant is played with allure and cunning by Reanne Farley who manages to keep one step ahead of Edwin’s advances with nimble, well timed movement.
The only cameo role of the evening is played superbly by Kim Wall. His timing is spot on and he does a nice transition from devious Sir Humphrey-like Deputy PM to an unfortunate victim. Orlando Gibbs also features as a flunky. The direction, by David Anderson keeps a nice balance between the serious points being made by this clever script and pure farce.
The winner was announced at the end of the evening after the three plays had been performed. The adjudication was only on the writing and the perception of the judges of how they would appear when performed – which seems odd when the judges could have saved their final evaluation until they had seen them performed on one of the two previous evenings. All the performances were excellent but, for me the least successful performance on the night, Waiting for Hamlet, was declared the winner of the writing award – exactly as happened last year. Congratulations to David Visick, a worthy winner and to the gifted runners up, Kevin McMahon and Jeff Nolan.
The continued success of the Kenneth Branagh Awards is a tribute to the hard work and organisation of a group of people dedicated to the furtherance of drama in all our lives. May it long continue to grow and gain even more recognition.