Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Mon 24th – Sat 29th August 2015

reviews

Archie Hill

at 10:13 on 25th Aug 2015

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The American author David Foster Wallace is one of those modern writers whose work continues to resonate and appeal to an ever wider audience, even since his suicide in 2008. Oxford University Dramatic Society’s (OUDS) adaptation of his short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which comes to Edinburgh from its sell-out run in Oxford, is further demonstration of the growing influence of Foster Wallace, and is relatively successful in its attempts to deliver the stylised monologues – more like confessions – of different apparently normal men, each discussing their own strange ‘proclivities’.

The book on which the play is based is a typically dark examination of postmodern sexuality and culture; twisted, idiosyncratic, written in prose that is revealing as well as both dense and opaque. These ‘interviews’ are one-sided: the only listener is the audience, sat in the blank, intimate venue of the Space on the Mile. The four actors face an enormous challenge in holding the audience’s attention throughout their monologues. Like any show consisting of different self-contained sections, some parts work better than others. The opening is, I think, the most powerfully delivered. A rapist sits in frustrated silence while listening to his confession played back to him on a tape recorder: we hear only the voice, and it sums up the central contradiction of the play. The speakers are at once highly verbose; constantly, compulsively talkative, but also inarticulate, impotent, unable to express themselves and their secret desires.

The best of the monologues captured this disconnect, this isolation hiding behind a layer of meaningless language. “What are we trying to say to ourselves?” reflects one man in a moment of self-awareness. The pauses, the repetitions, the ellipses; we see moments of painful reality in the most bizarrely comic situations, be it weird fetishes or the concealed truths of a particularly unconventional marriage.

I’m still not convinced about how well the book transfers to the stage though: when spoken out loud the immensely (and at times unnecessarily) ponderous writing of Foster Wallace’s text becomes distracting, with certain monologues dragging; failing to keep the audience engaged. At the same time, the transition between each monologue comes across as being slightly abrupt on occasion, rather than as a fluid, continuous piece. These faults however lie primarily with the text which, if anything, OUDS have too much respect for, rather than the cast who performed well, tackling what are undoubtedly challenging and, one hopes, ultimately rewarding roles.

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Tess Davidson

at 10:15 on 25th Aug 2015

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Brief Interviews With Hideous Men – the work of American author David Foster Wallace – has a considerable reputation that precedes it, making it a difficult feat for all those attempting to translate its complex themes for theatre audiences. Exploring alienation through mediums such as unconventional sexual tastes, it is a fragmented series of monologues that test the boundaries of societal convention. Adapted by Josh Dolphin and Penny Cartwright, the Oxford University Drama Society use a collection of ‘interviews’, all lacking introductory questions, to give a platform to the uglier side of human nature. What follows is a disjointed discourse of pain and isolation, revealing the true extent to which society marginalises those who are different or veer off the track in life.

The opening scene sets a powerful tone for the show, a crouched figure under a murky light, later to be revealed as a rapist. At this point, it looked set to be an excellent production, and my sights were set high. Unfortunately, OUDS failed to impress. The monologues, whilst performed emotively by a strong cast, still felt hollow, and at times contrived; the actors visibly playing the part rather than engaging on a deeper level with the script. However, the cast worked well as a team, their natural chemistry enabled them to engage as best they could with the audience. It felt that in these circumstances the monologues were a creative restriction upon the cast’s ability and as such, they did their best to maintain suitable gravitas and emotional substance within such forced artistic parameters.

The use of lighting and sound was particularly impressive in this production, with the flashing of lights at an increasingly rapid pace corresponding nicely to the interrogative tone of the script. Music added a human touch, reinforcing the authenticity of the scenarios while the use of a screen enabled the small cast to ensure that their space was used to its absolute maximum, thus adding another intricate layer to the already densely packed writing of Foster Wallace. The bathroom scene in particular, was deeply poetical – albeit too protracted in length -, the use of physical movement combined with onstage props making for an ethereal few minutes.

It is hard to say how well the work of Foster Wallace has translated across into theatre. With controversial material, there is a fine line between allowing an authentic response to blossom and enforcing a contrived perception of how one should respond. I felt disappointed by the production, yet feel that OUDS cannot be blamed for limitations that are already potentially pre-existing from the nature of the original text.

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