Colloquium, written by Katherine Stockton and directed by Charles Douglas, provides its audience with an effective and comical exploration into the exclusivity of knowledge – specifically, the institutionalisation of knowledge – and into the scholastic separation of knowledge from human feeling and emotion. In some aspects, this is a very intelligent text, witty and satirical and clearly inspired by a great deal of academic reading. From a dramaturgical perspective, however, it is…rocky, to say the least.
Stockton clearly struggled when writing this dramatic text to decide whether she wanted a more ‘contemporary’, actor-driven performance, making use of figures as opposed to characters, and episodes and montages as opposed to scenes and linear plots; or a ‘traditional’, character-driven play with emphasis on character development, mutability and psychological realism. The material we are presented until the middle of the performance is fragmented and non-linear; we are not presented with coherent and mutable ‘characters’ but with figures: teachers and pupils; the successful and wise, and the ‘stupid’ and failing. Yet, from the middle of the play onwards, a bizarre attempt at psychological realism surfaces, most peculiarly with the character of Professor A (Seán Bennett).
We are informed through his rather biting interaction with Student A (Caitlin Wood) that Professor A is bored with the monotony and sterility of his life dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, education and individuality. After this, we see that he is dejected, pondering. At the close of the play, he sits forlorn, staring into space. As the other performers form a line Downstage [an ending upon which I will elaborate further below], Bennett is still. When he finally stands to join them, he is silent and does not deliver a one-liner like the rest or stare into the audience; instead, he stares at his feet.
This is utterly confounding to me, given that Professor A has had such an understated presence in this play up until now. Perhaps an issue with Bennett’s acting, we see Professor A constantly burying his face into his notepad throughout the performance, silent, negligible, indistinct. He has no obvious personality; he simply utters bombastic phrases about literature and personal development, making a habit to chastise and condescend Student A whenever he can. Other than being prejudged by the other professors above him, this is the extent of his ‘character’. With this in mind, I fail to see why he is suddenly presented as somebody with feeling, as passible, reacting to material. I believe that we are meant to feel something more from his character, especially with the fact that he is constantly on stage throughout, sat off to the side – again, his face buried inertly [and frustratingly] in his notepad – but whatever the reason for this, it is not being communicated well at all at present.
I use this character as an example, but there is a similar effect with PhD Student B (Daniel Wheeler) who details to us his backstory and psychology and reveals his relationship with his mother’s lover, all in a rather lengthy but comical monologue. Whilst this monologue and PhD Student A’s (Anna Hodgson) actually demonstrate good naturalism and progression and work well as dramatic pieces alone, they simply do not fit in with the rest of the dramatic text. When I consider how emotion is delivered by the character of Student A, for example, there is a clear difference in the degree of psychological realism we are offered. Student A remains a mere [unnaturalistic] spokesperson for the frustrations of those deemed unknowledgeable and unworthy by education institutions. Her opinions are blatant and sterile. She does not divulge much about herself, about her ‘character’; only her beliefs. Her feelings are expressed only to fuel her protest, not to our benefit, to better her character profile. We have no profound sense of her identity or backstory, and this is what makes her analytical function in the play, as an omniscient and subversive underdog of sorts, so effective.
Hoping that I have elucidated my frustrations with the inconsistency of style with this dramatic text, I will now move on to the performers and their capabilities. Alex Gallacher (playing Student B) stands out above all as the most credible and convincing performer. She demonstrates great vitality and conviction. However, I find, compared to that of the other performers — except for one of Daniel Hemsley's characterisations, that of Professor B — that her style is far too caricatural. The other performers have an acting style better approximating naturalistic, and this should be reflected in Gallacher’s characterisation too. Currently, she stands out too sorely, however impressive her acting is. Hemsley is the next most impressive. He demonstrates good character differentiation and a good understanding of intent and action. He offers great expressivity and physicality. Wheeler provides us with good naturalism and great emotional range but struggles to differentiate sufficiently between his two characters – I am afraid changing out of a sweater and into a blazer was not enough to allow us to discern one of his characters from another here. To demonstrate a clearer change in character, I would like to see distinct physicalities and variation in tone and idiolect from him. Hodgson also demonstrates good emotional range and expressivity, though conviction is certainly lacking in the seminar scene. Bennett and Wood, I am afraid, remain somewhat mediocre, neutral. Both could work on emotional range and expressivity — though this is less the case for Wood — and naturalism and credibility are certainly lacking where they ought not to.
There are some particular dramatic techniques utilised in this performance that irk me. I will start with miming. First, the simultaneous scenes – notably, at the beginning of the performance. An editorial issue as much as a blunder in blocking, one scene is often given far too much stage time over the other, which would not be so big an issue if performers had a better understanding of what they were doing when they were to be silent. The beginning scene sees two simultaneous scenes, one between Bennett and Wood, and another between Hemsley and Gallacher. Whilst the conversations each pair have are lively, sharp, energised, the miming that the pairs do between speech is understated, calm and slow. This means that when we return to conversation, the pairs suddenly burst out of their silent stupor and the dialogue ensues as though there has been no pause. This is most unnatural to watch. Performers need to work closely with Douglas here to devise more convincing and decisive movements to act out during these scenes. If anything, two simple spotlights, one dimmed when the other is lit, could have been used here to break the scenes up more coherently. What is more, topography is confused by the proximity of the two scenes to one another, allowing for Hemsley to trespass into the realm of the other scene when he – peculiarly – walks in front of Gallacher and in-between the two chairs, only to stand behind her. Why not walk the other way? I should quite note here the complete difference in style between this scene and the monologues, for example. I hope in doing so, my comments about stylistic inconsistency will make better sense.
Then, there is the seminar scene wherein we see an odd display of ‘musical chairs’, for lack of a better term. It is clear that whoever has the upperhand or whoever feels more confident in their abilities and prepared for the seminar sits on the chair furthest Stage Right in the straight row, and their opposite sits on the other end, far Stage Left, to form a spectrum in-between: most powerful/confident/able to least. That is certainly well communicated…but what for? Why are they all jumping around and changing seats? It just feels like the creatives are playing around with space and levels for the sake of it. There is no worthwhile effect to come from this unnatural display.
Finally, we have the ending. The ending feels very cheap and understated. There are no conclusions to be made, and all we are left with is the weird aforementioned stab at psychological realism with the character of Professor A’s apparent breakdown. That every character should deliver a line each to the audience feels robotic, predictable and unimaginative. What is more, these statements they each deliver have very little bearing on the text. They are extracts from what their ‘characters’ have said earlier in the play…but again, why? With Hemsley’s line, “Don't go soft, old boy”, and Wheeler’s line, “You're my mentor. I can talk to you about this, right?”, I imagine that this was another attempt at recalling the separation of emotion and knowledge in institutions, but this is poorly communicated and has little bearing on the overall text which deals more with the exclusivity and esotericism attributed to knowledge in education institutions. I would really advise a complete reimagining of the ending. Currently, it feels that all of the action we have watched amounts to nothing and that this is why Stockton quickly employed an emotional section about Professor A for a final attempt at a dramatic climax.
My very final note considers how this performance describes itself: ‘Colloquium follows the Alan Bennett school of thought. It, too, balances the conflicting hopes of education: to teach for the exam, for success, or to teach for life. Colloquium investigates the role that our most ancient universities have to play in that balance.’ I am afraid that this is simply not what the performance achieves. It achieves what I outlined in the introduction of this review, not an exploration into a university’s duty to ‘balance the conflicting hopes of education’, especially given that the vast majority of content is from the students’ perspective. I am afraid that this description demonstrates that the dramatic text is unsure of itself and of the messages that it communicates to its audience, both in its style and on paper. This focus on the ‘Alan Bennett school of thought’ is a mere [perceptible] inspiration for aspects of this text, a stimulus, but it is not what is investigated or ‘followed’.