Scarborough must be one of the few festival venues in the UK which necessitates the program including the number for the coastguard in its 'In case of emergency...' section. Performers at the National Student Drama Festival have yet to use the sea for dramatic purposes however. Wonder why?
Britain's always had a bit of a reputation for the theatre and its thesps. Ever since that Shakespeare bloke started putting quill to parchment, it's true to say that there's been something of a tradition to the quality of its playwrights, productions and performers. Unlike most sports, we helped start it off and we're still good at it too thanks to the grass roots enthusiasm and academic system that means the next generation of talent is just behind the curtain. Now established as part of that system for the last half century, the National Student Drama Festival is an annual showcase of the best productions studentdom has to offer for the year and a fantastic opportunity to meet and learn from the professionals.
The second year of Nick Stimson's reign as artistic director at the festival was the first totally sunny one in recent memory, and saw the 17 plays selected from 133 candidates performed over its eight day run. Interestingly, these shows were almost all new or contemporary, fitting in nicely with the 'See The Future' moniker brandished on the programme.
Keeping it up to date, modern life's loves, trials and tribulations cropped up in various forms. Lucy Prebble's Liquid found it in a bar amongst city wheelers and dealers and Sarah Kane's Crave soliloquised it for the nameless. Eric Bogosian's Tales From The Underground internalised it as we listened to the sole character's take on the big picture (and the small). His reminisces varied from the satirical to the nostalgic, and it was down memory lane that Liz Boorman's I Was Almost Dusty Springfield and Ollie Rance's Mrs Blackwell Eats Her Cake went as well. Their invocations - of sixties music and the Thatcherite years respectively - roused both pros and cons stemmed from the audiences own reactions to those subjects. Frank McGuiness' Someone Who'll Watch Over Me however unified the audience in its aghast memories of the war in Beirut but left them wishing that St Andrew's performance had got it really right.
In contrast, the first highlight of the festival came as an homage to the age of silent cinema and was as close as a production at the fest has intentionally come to pure comedy in a long while. The Hush was fifty minutes of unadulterated fun as its bumbling detective chased dumb hoods and femme fatales in search of his goal. A pity then that some saw it as too shallow to be good - surely the goal of some productions is just the intense stimulation of the audience's funny bone?
Two other shows also relied on action over vocals this year. Daniel Alexander's Number 2 and Ramesh Meyyappan's performance of Dario Fo's Mistero Buffo and Franca Rame's A Woman Alone, the latter particularly inspiring when put together with the knowledge that the performer is himself deaf. Wishing for some, or indeed any, action and semblance of engaging dialogue was this year's turkey - Hull's interpretation of Roberto Zucco by Bernard-Marie Koltès. Performed at a slow plod to create an air of mystery and curiosity, it instead induced drowsiness by the intermission and a profound sense of relief amongst those who braved the second half at its conclusion. Something was (definitely) lost in the translation here. Probably the essence of it all, as Sir Peter Hall might say.
Last on the list (of those shows this writer saw anyway) were two devised pieces. The meditation on the number pi that was Scarborough College's Twenty-Two Over Seven was at times funny, interesting, and beguiling, but more often than not, quite surreal. Redborne's Long Wave also came from this direction but touched on quite different emotions at the same time. The standout performance of the entire week, this talcum-drenched ode to fractured memories, mental breakdowns and the end of the world was affecting, tragic and played with the audience's senses like a child's playthings. Acting and direction were all spot on, a unique set design kept our eyes from wandering and as the only play which had paid attention to sound design stopped our ears from going astray as well. Amazing - truly.
Beyond the stage, attempts to 'see the future' were disenfranchised by an agenda of retrospection and complacency. Ironically, the biggest 'event' of the festival was in fact the biggest non-event. Entitled 'Provocations', the agenda was to discuss the very point of theatre and why it was practiced but in the end, it provoked only gnashings of teeth as the audience and panel chased their own tails and never got any further than common sense would have reasoned anyway. If someone was expecting a revelatory new truth it wasn't to be had here. Perhaps they should have listened harder to Sir Peter Hall's opening keynote. Presenting his take on the essence of theatre and the state of the British theatre industry as he saw it, the downbeat nature of his talk was overridden by his pure passion for theatre and the pleasure he plainly took in producing a play. The answer he inferred was as plain as the slogan on the festival t shirt - 'Because I Can…'
Those companies performing this year also had reason to be disappointed with the spirit of the crowd at this year's discussion sessions. Whereas previous seasons had seen healthy debate on the merits and faults of a company's show, there were only some lukewarm 'I liked it'-s here and a few 'Not as good as it could have been'-s there. Anyone attempting to express an extreme opinion good or bad preceded their words with such tempering prologues that you wondered if there were Neanderthals outside the auditorium ready to beat people up for vocalizing their thoughts. One group who acknowledged their show hadn't been the best were heard to wonder if the audience had seen the same show they'd been performing. Indeed, but they were never asked if they didn't like that, or any other production for that matter by the master of the discussion sessions. A flaw, to be sure.
What vitriol people could muster was voiced instead in the columns of the festival's newsletter, Noises Off. Also in a state of flux with the retirement of its longstanding editor, NOFF's copy had equal amounts of genius and needless repetition. Less a target of criticism itself this year, the festgoers' main complaint was that the same people were always featured in its daily pages. Well, if those complacent masses would hand in material, the problem would have been solved.
To be fair, this festival wasn't all complacent navel-gazing. A new venture called the NSDF Ensemble willed itself into existence during the week, taking the best talent the shows had to offer and setting them up for future collaboration. Likewise, the hundred-plus workshops continued to train and inspire those attending them for future work, as did the shows themselves (all bar Roberto Zucco anyway).
However, Denise Black, one of this year's judges, hit the nail on the head when addressing the throngs at the award ceremony on the last day of the fest. 'Theatre is worth fighting for.' she said. How true. No-one in the industry should have the time to sit back on their laurels and assume they will get further by continuing to do so, least of all the next generation that this festival pays host to. Theatre is for provoking, wheedling, amusing, battering, bludgeoning and soothing. It is an active thing and so is criticism. Let's hope the festival reflects that truism more accurately next year than it did this. Then we really will start to see what the future has to offer theatre.
Long Wave will be performed as a double bill with the first production by the NSDF ensemble in September. For venue details and details of NSDF '03, please visit the official festival website at http://www.nsdf.org.uk