“there’s plenty of wiggle room for it to be a lot slicker and a lot funnier”
In his programme notes, writer Oliver Myers cites a 2017 online argument between an alt-right youtuber who claimed that Roman Britain was not a diverse society, and Mary Beard who elegantly stepped in to point out that in fact Roman Britain was incredibly diverse, as inspiration for Aaron and Julia. And so it was that he came to write a play about the beginnings of Christianity, made thoroughly modern, full of fun anachronism and witty repartee, and indeed plenty of cultural diversity, directed by Amelia Hursey.
The Name ‘Aaron and Julia’ is a bit of a red herring as there aren’t any parts particularly smaller or larger than any other. Rather, it’s about eight characters of equal importance, varying in cultural, economic and geographical backgrounds, each working to their own agenda and yet somehow finding themselves at the same finish line: the building of a church.
From the get we’re thrown into the deep end, with quick back-and-forths between Afra (Bethany Sharp) the famous Goth courtesan, and Adelfius (Calum Robshaw) a bishop of questionable morals. Whilst they no doubt explain where and who they are, it’s all quite hard to gage without any real set, barring some hanging ivy and a couple of homemade posters behind the audience. This might be fine if they slowed down a little or worked out where to lay the stress so that the audience could understand what information was important and what was merely crosstalk.
On the other hand, the script seems to be largely exposition, only emphasised by the fact the characters do little else but stand around. Without any furniture, there’s very little opportunity for different levels even; for casually sitting down or inspecting something else on stage whilst talking or listening. Instead, everyone’s stood rather unnaturally, facing one another.
The performances themselves are full of nervous enthusiasm. Whilst the script is mostly delivered with gusto, lines are often followed by a look of fear, as though everyone was getting over terrible stage fright. There are also some long pauses where forgotten lines are tensely sought after, and some very hammy turns to the audience to deliver an already over-egged punchline. That being said, the energy and obvious eagerness of the cast suggests that by the weekend they will have smoothed some of this out, perhaps relaxing a little into the story.
This is a really interesting time in history when so much of what we now consider to be set in societal stone was still very much up in the air, for better or worse. The generous heaping of anachronism keeps the story fresh and engaging- Julia, for example, is always on her ‘tablet’, reading old messages from ex-boyfriends. And the sophisticated tyranny of the Roman empire is framed as Monty Python-esque, all with a wink and a whimper.
There’s a strong whiff of the am-dram about this production, but there’s plenty of wiggle room for it to be a lot slicker and a lot funnier. Maybe another week in the rehearsal room and we’ll be on to something.
“whilst the production itself falls short, Charles’ efforts to highlight Reckord’s writing should be remarked upon and appropriately lauded”
‘White Witch’ is undoubtedly a fascinating tale, and whilst its credentials as being based on a true story are more than shaky (the story of Annie Palmer is a legend with no real historical evidence), its messages of equality, sexual liberation, and collaboration over competition are incredibly powerful and pertinent.
But the actual performance is massively lacking. Though Joseph Charles’ production might have gone down a treat in 2017, with one reviewer describing it as “theatre at its best”, unfortunately the same cannot be said for his 2021 production.
Set in eighteenth-century Jamaica, plantation owner Mr Palmer (Robert Maskell) returns from a trip to England with a new wife, Annie (Georgina Bailie), whose supposed powers of witchcraft have preceded her. But her magical powers are the least of Palmer’s worries. It transpires that whilst in England, Palmer partook in the lynching of a young black man who was, unbeknownst to him, Annie’s lover. She sets about to take revenge, marrying Palmer and, from the moment she arrives in Jamaica, proceeding to dismantle and destroy his entire estate and him along with it.
A very compelling plot, full of varying shades of horror and complex characters. On stage, however, it’s chaos, playing for laughs when the audience should be at their most tense; often speaking in thick and fast West Indies accents and facing away from the audience with no microphones, making it extremely difficult to hear; music and sound effects starting and stopping suddenly, often louder than the dialogue and without any verbal or visual cues or explanations. And the sound effects (Derek Fevrier) themselves are bizarre: dogs barking off-stage are clearly people barking, and gunshots sound more like ‘poof’, leading the audience to lean towards one another and audibly ask what that was, despite someone obviously walking off-stage with a pointed gun.
The lighting (Larry Coke) is erratic, beginning with a soft yellow morning hue, then switching to a blue in the next scene, one would assume to denote evening. But during the same scene it switches back to yellow, followed by another blue hue with accompanying cricket noises. So now it’s night time? What happened before? In the final moments of the play in which (spoiler alert) Annie’s genuine powers of witchcraft are revealed, the lighting becomes a speckled, swirling red, which makes the whole thing feel very silly.
The plot itself is rich in conflicts and desires, progress butting heads with old power. But somehow by the end it’s devolved into a sort of farce, the audience comfortable enough to holler and heckle. This seems so at odds with the subject matter it does actually cross my mind that Charles is going for a kind of Dadaist absurdism.
Credit where credit is due, in 2017, Joseph Charles discovered a play that had never been performed in the United Kingdom, by Barry Reckord, a massively underappreciated writer who deserves a firm place in the canon. And rather than paying his dues just the once and allowing Reckord to slip back into partial obscurity, Charles stuck to his guns, and gave ‘White Witch’ another turn. And whilst the production itself falls short, Charles’ efforts to highlight Reckord’s writing should be remarked upon and appropriately lauded.