While it’s been difficult times all round for everyone involved with theatre, I can’t help but feel an extra wave of sympathy for drama students who were due to come to the end of their courses and then head out in the great wide world to practise their art. Graduations have been put on hold and the customary showcases and final-year productions that would normally have got them in front of agents and casting directors, in many cases have not occurred. Fortunately, as with other branches of the artform, the internet is there to help mitigate the problem and provide an opportunity to display upcoming talent . And that is precisely what the MA Acting Contemporary students at the Central School of Speech and Drama (CSSD) London have done with a piece they filmed last autumn before everything firmly shut down again. It turned out to be an interesting play which worked on a variety of levels.
I’m a sucker for an intriguing title and The Censor, or how to put on a political play without being fined or arrested seemed about as intriguing as they come. It’s a commissioned piece from writer Hannah Khalil which does what it says on the tin and gives the students plenty of scope to show what they can do. The play is set in an unspecified country where political censorship has become the norm and the company are rehearsing a play that they would almost certainly not be allowed to perform. They are in a rehearsal room – which is handy – and entering the final stages of preparation for their performance and attempting to have a run through.
In point of fact, they are having two run throughs. The first is for a play about perceived enemies of the repressive system who drop off the radar and disappear. Five women lose partners/family members and attempt to track them down facing a wave of bureaucracy and downright denial; they are also in danger of “disappearing” themselves. The second is a run through of a Feydeau farce Hortense a dit: “je m’en fous!” which translates literally as Hortense says: “I don’t care!” or, more colloquially, as Hortense says: “It’s no skin off my ass!” It is set in a dentist’s surgery and looks to be pretty much standard Feydeau fare, involving a number of suggestive situations and people galloping in and out of doors; to add to the confusion four different actors play the dentist. At first sight it is extremely puzzling as to why these two diametrically opposite productions should be being rehearsed in rotation, but it soon becomes clear that the second is merely a front for the first. A trouser suited and masked official censor is in attendance and the company can only rehearse the political play when she is out of the room, otherwise it’s the French farce – a somewhat farcical situation in its own right.
It’s not quite clear why the censor keeps leaving the room – other than that she needs to for the conceit to work – and a telephone ringing always alerts the troop that she is on her way back so there is some swift and well drilled movement which recurs to change from one scenario to the other. To be honest I thought this happened one too many times although it did explain the increasing disgruntlement of the actors who had to keep effecting the changes. They are caught in a repetitive loop with one play that they want to put on but that the authorities won’t permit because it is critical of the regime. The other is a play that may be deemed suitable but which they don’t want to do. They (real actors) are also caught up with the etiquette of social distancing which leads to another level of awkwardness especially when the dentist is trying to treat patients by not coming anywhere near them. This is used to advantage in the farce scenes to add another layer of comedy.
Thus, there are about 16 students playing versions of themselves playing two sets of characters in two quite distinct plays (keeping up?) See what I mean about an opportunity to display talent? And they undoubtedly do, providing an entertaining and thought provoking hour that is still making my head whirl this morning. Eventually the actor characters begin to realise that they are the only people they are doing it for; there isn’t and there’s never likely to be an audience. It raises the more general question, pertinent at this moment in time, is there any point in rehearsing and performing a play if there is nobody to watch it and engage with? There’s a very nice moment about two thirds of the way through when the production within a production’s harassed stage manager harangues the somewhat precious performers by reminding then that there is a whole band of creatives, technical and backstage staff who are also crucial to bring a piece to life. It’s a salutary reminder that the pandemic is something which has hit all areas of theatre life.
The Censor, or how to put on a political play without being fined or arrested is available on You Tube – click here
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