The Break of Day – photo Millie Amies

I spent rather a lot of Saturday sitting on a (rather firm) chair in the UEA Drama Studio, to see the two impressive productions of plays written by Timberlake Wertenbaker that the third year drama students were putting on.

Timberlake Wertenbaker holds the position of Chair of Playwrighting at the UEA, and her name is often heard in the credits for radio versions of classic dramas including War and Peace. She is clearly expert in the interpretation and construction of classical theatre including the Greek tragedies that inspires one of these two plays.

The Break of Day

This play looks at the tensions in the relationships of three women as they try to balance successful careers with the desire to have children. Each has a different strategy to achieve their aims. The play starts with a song from Nina (Verity Hodgson-Bajoria) a recording artiste who has married her record producer Hugh (Thomas Gutteridge) but seems to have lost her creative mojo. Her friend Tess (Erin Clancy) is a thriving magazine editor (this is set in 1995) living with occasionally working actor Robert (Ben Prudence). The third friend April (Isabel Morgan) is a classics professor who yearns for some commitment from Jamie (Alexander Wiseman) a doctor who is obsessed with the impending closure of his hospital.

The comparisons of the paths to their goals is a large part of the first half, while the second act looks more closely at the trials and tribulations faced by Nina and Hugh as they try to adopt a sickly Eastern European child to rear as their own. Reflecting no doubt the reality of this process the second half does go on a bit, only occasionally lightened by the haphazard nature of the local bureaucracy. The play references Chekhov’s Three Sisters from time to time, but while this is an interesting work I do not think it will be performed as often as the Chekhov work has been.

The engaging performances of the leading sextet of characters is matched by the fine performances of the thirteen other performers which include several amusing little cameos that poke fun at the chaos of post-Soviet Eastern Europe. These UEA students really are very good at their craft and not for the first time I feel that they deserve better material to portray. The cast give us memorable and distinctive characters from the start. Hugh has a son, Nick (Shay Jenkins) who is troubled by the suddenly announced pregnancy of his kooky girlfriend Marisa (an excellent portrayal by Hattie Manton) and their characters could have been developed further, but as with so many in this busy script the moment passed without satisfactory resolution. The host couple (unexplained) for the adoption, Eva (Charley Hawthorne) and Mihail (Sebastian Garbacz) are fascinating characters beautifully portrayed that leave us with more questions than answers. Lots of joshing about ‘Kommu-nism’ but no believable context, just too many hints.

My grumbles about the script should be set aside. This is an enjoyable and very well crafted production that fully deserved the capacity audience that I joined on Saturday. I hope that many of the cast go on to find employment and careers on the stage if they choose that perilous path. Every one of them can be proud of their contribution to this memorable performance.

The Love of the Nightingale

With this play first commissioned by the RSC in 1988 Wertenbaker shows a harder edge with an uncompromising adaptation of the Greek legend of the rape of Philomela. The playwright takes the Greek tale and gives it a sharp feminist viewpoint, quite appropriately.

Sisters Procne (Kate Suitor) and the younger Philomela (Lauren Ecclestone) are first seen discussing rather frankly the often hidden subject of female desire and pledging to keep close to each other, before we see Procne married off to Thracian king Tereus (Guy Bohanon) to repay a debt of battle. Philomela wants to see her sister, now transposed many seamiles North, and is entrusted to Tereus by her father Pandion (Alexander Grauwiler) for the perilous journey. On the way, he slows the vessel as he is consumed with lust for Philomela. She has taken a fancy to the Captain (Bryan Tshiobi) who gets unjustly murdered for his apparent complicity. When the raped Philomela refuses to be silent Tereus cuts out her tongue and pretends that her sister is dead. But she is not, and eventually the two sisters come together, understand their predicament and take terrible revenge. This is Greek tragedy here.

Like the earlier ‘The Break of Day’ the cast in ’The Love of the Nightingale’ are uniformly excellent. Both shows are double-cast for many roles but all perform with good discipline and strong characterisation. They enjoy the enthusiastic support of a home audience, but this approbation is well deserved.

This work is well structured and uses many of the classical Greek methods of presenting a play, with a chorus providing the narrative. We do not see enough of the Greek classics on stage, and so are not familiar enough with the carefully constructed conventions and methods of this once well developed art form. This is a minor tragedy in itself, which Wertenbaker’s script seeks to remedy. It sweeps through issues of violence, sexuality and redemption in a tale that is as relevant now to the abuse of wealth and power as it would have been in the Athens of its setting. It is a satisfying and beautifully presented work where the cast enact scenes that are often violent and traumatic in a manner that is credible but not overdone.

As a showcase for the work of this UEA Drama department and the talented students in it this is a fine double bill, and the capacity audience for both shows demonstrates the recognition they have earned for the quality of their work. I review many diverse theatre shows, but will always prioritise the UEA Studio works as I know it will be worth it. Take the time to look up @wertenbakeruea to find out more.

I have credited the actors that I saw myself but many roles in these plays were swapped between actors during the studio run. They all deserve praise. And to save you a search, Thrace is roughly where Bulgaria is now. I must visit.

© Julian Swainson 2019