Roger Allam and Jodhi May in the 2006 production of Blackbird at the Albery.
Roger Allam and Jodhi May in the 2006 production of Blackbird at the Albery.

Questions are raised in SUDS’ new production

Last week I was invited to watch a twenty-minute snippet of SUDS’ (Sussex University Drama Society) week seven production of Blackbird, followed by a short interview with the cast and director of the play.

As I watched in the cold rehearsal room in Falmer House, I was already impressed by the level of commitment these students were giving – a good sign of quality. The extract I saw was very intense, but not exhausting (I wish I was able to see the whole thing!).

My first question after the performance, and perhaps the most obvious, was why this play? The director, Stefan Adegbola, informs me that he saw this play performed a few years ago and was instantly impressed. “It was my first experience at the theatre with a ‘taboo’ subject being treated so subtly. It wasn’t ironic, there was no jokes, and no happy ending. A fascinating play.”

“So, when the opportunity came to direct again for SUDS, this was  the one to do, not just because it was different, but also because it was a good challenge.” Indeed, this is not the first time Stefan has graced SUDS with his undoubtedly strong talent; in 2007, he staged a production of Yerma.
Without giving too much away (the cast and director are very hesitant to even try to describe the whole play’s plot to me), the two hour production follows characters Ray and Una, fifteen years after their ‘relationship’. It’s the first time they’ve seen each other since, and its fair to say it isn’t a joyous reunion.

From the snippet I saw, the ‘issue’, (which I’m reluctant to out myself) the directors and actors stress, is not the focal point of the play. With something so explosive, it easily could have been, but they are keen to emphasise that it is the relationship that takes centre stage.

“The play’s so well written it’s very hard to come to any obvious conclusions. It has no beginning, has no end, its just there.”

My attention is drawn to the two, and only actors in the play, Greg Cranness (who plays Ray) and Rosie Sansom (playing Una). How did they go about researching for their characters?
Rosie explains that because of the difficult situation they are in, and their very individual experiences of their past relationship, there was a lot she was able to draw from the script. “We had solo rehearsals to begin with to help us get to grips with the people we were portraying. No external research was really needed because the characters are so strong in the play.”

Greg agrees with his co-star by adding, “because of the sensitivity of the issue dealt with in the play, it was quite difficult to research” (often for fear of having his computer investigated by the police!). “Because Ray suffers from a psychological disorder, I wanted to know how it would be treated, and how he himself may feel about his problems.”

Their chemistry on stage is unquestionable. There is a constant battle between who the villain and victim is of the two, something I still don’t know myself.

They all agreed that when they started rehearsing for the play (which went into production in week two), they would not judge the characters. “You can’t have any preconceptions of these characters. You must put personal prejudices to one side, as it could be damaging when trying to get to the bottom of Ray and Una, and could give them the wrong focus”, Rosie adds.

Given  that the play is so heavily dependant on the emotions of these two people, it certainly has an aspect of rawness to it; there is no messing about with the acting, it’s high-class and mature. And I must remind myself that this was only a rehearsal.

The set is minimal, again encouraging the audience to focus only on the leads. “What makes this play so powerful is its simplicity. It fits the old unity: time, place and action. Everything happens together in one continuous stream, in one place, so the audiences attention is on what is happening directly in front of them”, Stefan comments.

From what I saw, the play is very effective at doing just that, the intensity of it is impossible to ignore. But that’s undoubtedly its purpose, because as Stefan says, “it’s more satisfying for the audience.”

What do they want the audience to come away from the play feeling then, I wonder? The immediate answer is: “come with no expectations, and leave questioning your conclusions.” Stefan insists that it isn’t the job of the director to “push” any ideas on the audience, “mainly because the audience is very unpredictable.” Which is true. With such a contentious issue being toyed with here, there is no way of knowing how each audience member will react.

The name of the author, David Harrower, is ironic. As Stefan puts it, the play is very harrowing. Certainly, leaving their rehearsal, I did feel a little shaken by what I had seen of the play. Not by it’s dealing with a controversial topic though, but because of the high-level of talent that is present in the play.

Strong direction, serious actors, and a supreme script – very refreshing indeed. It’s a must see.

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