views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Etcetera Theatre
22nd August 2016


Publicity photograph for Oscar

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

People deal with grief in different ways. Some cry, some shut down completely... some visualise Oscar Wilde. When her girlfriend Nina (Mayra Stergiou) is killed, Lilly (Lizzie Buckingham) finds it difficult to cope and finds comfort in the words of the famous writer and his own struggles. Oscar is a brand new devised work-in-progress by Vertebra Theatre featuring music, dance, video imagery and puppets. At only half an hour long, it sure does pack in a lot of different styles and techniques.

Although it's clear that Nina meets her end far too soon, what's not obvious is that she's apparently gunned down in a gay nightclub. Given the Orlando shootings, this could be a really relevant and chilling setting, but the finer detail is lost and along with it, much of the emotional impact. We see Lilly reading from a book whilst Nina is still alive and realise from her repetition of lines from De Profundis that the man who visits her (a male puppet manipulated by Stergiou) must be Oscar Wilde himself. However, it does seem surprising that it's a manifestation of Wilde who visits Lilly rather than a vision of her dead lover. Kelly Frost's gorgeously crafted puppet is so simple and yet expressive that we are reluctant to dwell on this, eager to accept any tenuous reason to work it into the show.

Lilly seems drawn to the parts of Wilde's infamous letter where he declares he's led a hedonistic life and we can only suppose she feels conflicted about her sexuality, or perhaps in some way to blame for Nina's death. This potential guilt - possibly even survivor's guilt, we're not sure - feels frustratingly untapped. The initial dance sequence between Buckingham and Stergiou could be extended to bring out more of Lilly's internal confusion and to make her subsequent loss more hard-hitting. More passion would also be welcome to underline that the relationship between Nina and Lilly is not intended to be merely platonic. Lesbian theatre is surprisingly rare on the welcoming Off-West End circuit and there's an opportunity to do more here.

Oscar is very dialogue-lite, with the few words used often repeated again and again, primarily relying on movement to tell the story. This adds a certain gravitas and mystery and I don't think the production necessarily needs any more lines. Fleshing out the origins of Lilly and Nina's story by incorporating more dance would be enough to really bring out the themes of gender identity. Stergiou, with her director's hat on, needs to maintain more of a focus and decide what's important to the final version of this piece - the video imagery doesn't add a lot in its current state and could easily be abandoned in favour of strengthening one of the many other elements to this show.

There are areas to develop, Oscar isn't intended to be a finished piece, but it's nonetheless worth catching at this early stage. Lilly's tap dancing is joyous and hints at some kind of breakthrough in the grieving process. Stergiou's puppeteering is so delicately nuanced she somehow gives a voice to a silent character with a fixed expression. It's an intriguing show to watch, full of little flashes of beauty and excellence. Poignant, joyful and haunting with even more emotion to draw out, this production of Oscar marks the start of something special. We can't wait to see the final version.

Oscar opened on 22nd August and runs until 23rd August 2016 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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