Review: DUCT’s Classical Acting Showcase

Every year the Durham University Classical Theatre society (DUCT) holds a competition in which students, selected after a preliminary audition, perform classical monologues in front of a panel of professional judges. Due to Coronavirus-related restrictions, this year the competition is pre-recorded and is streaming online. There are also fewer performers, but each actor has double the usual stage time: each performs two contrasting monologues. The showcase is directed by Esalan Gates, with technical direction from Rose Buchanan and Becky Latcham.  

The recording usefully begins with some passages of text containing information about the competition. Performers’ names and the titles of their chosen monologues also appear in text. However, no context is given for the monologues themselves. It would be really helpful for the audience to have some brief information about who the characters are and where the scenes come in the plays. Perhaps these details could be delivered in an accompanying virtual programme. It would also be beneficial to learn from the performance recording itself who the judges are, although this information is published on DUCT’s social media pages.  

The actors perform in the Assembly Rooms Theatre in front of the red stage curtain. Some actors are wearing all black clothing; others are not. The show would be slicker if they were all dressed in neutral theatre blacks. The range in camera angles is very effective. The intermittent inclusion of close up shots is valuable because it means we can see just how wonderfully expressive all the actors are. The changes between shots could be smoother: the transitions can be jarring and take away from the audience’s immersion in the scenes.

For me, the standout performer in the showcase is Maire McGovern. McGovern’s first piece is Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. McGovern gives a remarkably earnest performance. She creates an authentic and believable character: instead of the lines sounding rehearsed, the thoughts seem to be just coming to her. She moves very smoothly (and with a good sense of purpose) to and from the stage block. She captures Hamlet’s exhaustion and confusion. McGovern’s second monologue is from Strindberg’s Miss Julie. McGovern balances the eponymous character’s defiance and vulnerability perfectly. She gives a very apt and chilling little smile when speaking of her longing to see Jean’s blood flow. She establishes Miss Julie’s naïveté, sense of entitlement, and desire to hurt Jean as he has hurt her. The monologue builds to a powerful climax when Miss Julie lashes out, stating that Jean is just a ‘dog’ with her collar on: McGovern delivers this line with just the right amount of rage and derision. Throughout this monologue her variations in pace, volume and tone are exemplary.

Ruth Louis gives a commanding and memorable performance as Queen Margaret from Henry VI Part III. Queen Margaret is berating her husband for choosing his life over his honour: Louis’ tone is suitably sarcastic and hostile, as is her expression of disgust and disappointment. Antonia Hogan makes Queen Catherine’s speech from Henry VIII potent and moving: she looks so crestfallen when she says that she has been Henry’s loyal wife for twenty years that we cannot help but sympathise with her. Flo Lunnon proves that she is an accomplished and versatile actress with her choice of monologues. As Lancelot Gobbo from The Merchant of Venice she is amusing, munching on Hula Hoops and chucking an apple over her shoulder; her performance of Antigone’s monologue is touching, particularly when she gives a tragic smile and states that in the tomb she will be reunited with many members of her family.

Ben Willows throws himself into the role of Mozart from Amadeus, capturing the character’s eccentricities perfectly.  His performance is energetic and engaging. It is a lovely touch that often, when Mozart is imitating other characters, he moves his arms in a way that looks like he is conducting. His monologue is particularly striking at the end: Willows laughs nervously and childishly grimaces, then states more seriously that while his tongue is infantile and silly, his heart is not. After all the awkward flamboyance and erratic movements comes a sudden earnestness, all the more poignant for its unexpectedness. It is, in short, a brilliant performance and one Willows should be very proud of.

I would definitely recommend watching DUCT’s Classical Acting Showcase, for there is so much to enjoy in it. The actors are talented and the monologues are varied: there are pieces from Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, Strindberg and Peter Schaffer. There are also bloopers at the end of the recording and it is lovely to see how much fun the actors and production team members are having. Their joy is infectious and reminds us how vital and uplifting theatre can be.

The online, pre-recorded performance of DUCT’s 2020 Classical Acting Showcase is available until the end of Sunday 8th November. Tickets are available on the Durham Student Theatre website.

Image: Esalan Gates. 

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