In the twenty-first century, as in any other period, we are not impressed by people simply doing things. We are more interested in knowing whether or not they were done dramatically and haphazardly. It intrigues us to discover that projects were forced together by stressed people, sweating and weeping as they bring them to fruition.
During the Russian Revolution, state atheism meant that many cathedrals were either destroyed or turned into swimming pool complexes. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was one that was destroyed. It initially took twenty-one years to build, but its reconstruction took just eight.
When we think of this swift reconstruction, we imagine toiling Russian craftsmen with beards of drooping sweat. We think of on-site hissy fits. We like to think of things being done quickly or painstakingly.
Television at the moment revolves around this idea. Think of Sixty Minute Makeover, where a house is quickly redesigned under the matriarchal guise of Claire Sweeney. Or Pimp My Ride, in which engineers hurriedly debate, with very little time, how many monitors you can install in a car that will be undriveable. We dig the drama, tears, frenzy.
This is partially what is attractive about Play in a Day, a termly event hosted by DramaSoc. The personnel involved in theatre, such as directors, writers, actors, set designers etc. are assembled and given twenty-four hours in total to prepare something to perform. The plays are beautifully unironed, the actors are forgiven for forgetting their lines, and any fragment of an idea seems to have been adopted liberally.
The main attraction, however, is the quality of the plays. One of the plays featured a contaminated water system, poisoned with a meta-theatrical hallucinogenic compound that appeared to make the residents of a house act like clichéd stage characters. One of them was forced to give Humphrey Bogart-style noir interjections. Another acted unwillingly like a jittery High School Musical star.
At one point a councilor visits the infected building, and he is asked, ‘Is the red mould making you forget your lines?’ This line challenged my conceptions of theatre more than many a Beckett or Pinter. The play was fundamentally comical, despite the fact that it ends tragically with all the characters awaiting death.
Another of the plays has an office worker hiring actors to stage frequent plays about her life sharing a house with a child entertainer, he being the audience. Having both apparently slept with the actors, their lives being minutely dissected every day convinces them that living with each other is not as bad as they thought. The noir element seems to come from the fact that the office worker is a fan of David Lynch.
There was also the mystery of the murder of Von Bastard, a distinguished twat, investigated by an odd corruption of a detective from a Raymond Chandler novel. There was even a Queen musical, featuring a transsexual Queen Victoria as the real ‘Killer Queen’, and Flash as a defender of Victorian mores.
Most of the performances had a notoriously comical edge, yet they were capable of seriousness. One tragedy involved a would-be murderer about to go through with her criminal instincts. She ended up initiating a conversation with a potential victim, gradually revealing the rationale behind her choice. Absent mother, deceased father. Her girlfriend sadly falling prey to violence the night before.
Acts like this are well-known for being sensationalised by the media. The play, written in of course twelve hours, features a line something like, ‘Leave some video games around, so they’ll think that’s why I did it.’
The playwright alludes to the constant search for motives involved in high school shootings – he alludes to the psychological complexity of victim and assailant. He manages this, like the Russians or Claire Sweeney’s hard-working DIY fairies, in twelve hours. This really is a testament to creative power, even when pulped senseless in order to meet a deadline.
Play in a Day is never going to be packed as the productions that everyone has heard of, like The Vagina Monologues. However, eccentricity and constructive fun were the favourite university activities of many great men and women. They were the reason age-old societies such as Cambridge Footlights were set up. The University can do worse to promote more activities like Play in a Day.