Thursday, 3 October 2013

Ritual Slaughter ? Royal Holloway MBA's theatrical learning experience

Lights, camera, action ! Ooops, that's the wrong genre ! Take your seats please we are about to embark on an archetypal London experience, live theatre.  The MBA group attended a sexually charged biopic of an average chap whose live took an unfortunate path, whilst offering huge financial success, combined personal ruin.
Clever introduction of social media promotion ?
Whilst many MBA candidates had seen opera or musical theatre, for several it was a double first experience.  The world class offering of rich productions is often taken for granted by those of us lucky enough to live and work close to central London. 
The play (The ritual slaughter of Gorge Mastromas at the Royal Court, written by Dennis Kelly, famous for hit West End show 'Matilda') had a rather obvious and simple core proposition around power, greed and personal ethics.  Put simply the inversion pitched to the audience was that as a young man Gorge did the morally right thing, but often faced poor outcomes from this behaviour e.g. handing in a wallet he found and being accused of stealing it.  The pivotal turning point came as a young adult in business when he chose personal greed over sound ethics and thence began his simultaneous journey to material success but personal ruination. 
As a signatory to the the UN treaty for responsible business education, Royal Holloway prides itself in significant and engaging approaches to ensuring students benefit from a strong ethical dimension to their programme.  The inclusion of a challenging experiential drama input on the MBA saw the teaching team awarded a prestigious College teaching award in 2013 and the experience learned from this novel approach will hopefully lead to a publication. 
MBA students were challenged by  drama professionals Alex Turner and Dr Emma Brodzinski to consider a number of factors beyond the obvious story presentation, looking at theatrical constructs, use of body and props/scenery.  Which got me thinking more critically about what was beholden to me.  I must admit that I am a cinema person.  I don't understand the motivation for live performance - all that stress, rehearsals, to do the same thing 5,6 or even 7 times a week, for weeks and months on end.  Surely it gets mechanical, uninspiring or just old ?  Isn't it better to spend lots of time getting the perfect delivery and capture it forever. (I'm thinking Ann Hathaway's tear ridden performance (take 4 I think) during the film version of Les Miserables, or Les Glums as it's know by the in crowd.)
I found the final twenty minutes played out a rather slow and predictable Christmas Carol pre-ghost Scrooge like ending of a 'successful' business man living out a lonely, pitiful existence, quite tricky to put across without the benefit of a passage of time constructs (e.g. costumes, make up, grey hair - remember THAT scene in Notting Hill when Hugh Grant's character forlornly walks through the market whilst the seasons change around him ?) 
That said the long show had pace and energy, which is quite surprising given that the first scene plays out with the whole cast front of stage sitting on cheap, grey, plastic chairs. No real scenery to speak of. I love contemporary, edgy theatre, but surely they were going to have some props and a bit of a set ?  I don't think I can sit through two plus hours of line up ping pong, even if it was sublimely timed, poignant and often funny.  The story telling, using a simple life story from conception (graphically described as an unplanned pregnancy) and entertainingly through childhood's embarrassing lows, with the occasional high.  This frank, blunt and well crafted dialogue clearly touched the audience (a cracking technique, most of us can easily related to stories of adolescence ?) sufficiently  to carry forwards through a rather elongated office based set that provided the ethical turning point in Gorge's life.
Impact lighting par excellence
During the line up the powerful technique of using three different voices conveying the same or similar idea using different forms of words was quite powerful.  Repetition of key messages (just like the news at 10) should have left most of the audience with a clear understanding of the key dilemma, goodness or cowardice.  Super silky smooth timing saw lines flawlessly delivered, with mesmerising impact carrying a sedate and simple story forwards in a highly engaging manner, a function of the clear multi-layered tapestry woven by the dialogue.  The writer is famous for having penned hit musical based on Roald Dahl's book "Matilda", the only show I have actually walked out on. I have slept through a few, but never actually walked out.  Thankfully this one was different.  Enough trails were left dangling to avoid telegraphing the various surprising twists and turns (that didn't feel like surprises when you actually got there...).  (Un)certainty about the shape of things to come was an intelligent dual edge intertwined into the fabric of the play.  No dumbing down here, complexity kept us guessing where the story would lead.  My ever so clever friend, and arty type, Fiona didn't guess it right either.
I found some elements still left me feeling ambiguous.  Red stars in the night sky signified progression, but how ?  Red light lines were indicative of share price indices (or cardio outputs ?) and a portacabin office board room was meant to convey the idea of big business hard nosed deal making.  The set came up lacking here, (cheap, empty, unrealistic space) perhaps because there was a huge attempt at greedy make or break deal making that just didn't feel authentic. 
MBA candidates were very positive about the experience (but it's always nice to have a few drinks and a bite to eat with your new class mates beforehand) although I was a tad concerned that the snappy humour (coarse I suspect is an appropriately technical description), cultural references and fast delivery might be challenging to non-native English speakers.  The gloomy conclusion was notably polar to a typical Hollywood block buster hero-saves-the-world everyone-lives-happy-ever-after ending, but that must be one of the joys of straight plays in theatre, the challenge is to engage and move people, not proffer false dawns and temporary trans location from tedium and misery. 

I didn't feel a numb bum, nor nod off - signs of a positive experience.  To be repeated me thinks !