Pistorius is the surname of a white South African Paralympic and Olympic athlete, who, after shooting his girlfriend, created a globally-discussed scandal drenched in political and racial controversy. It is also a student written play by Isaac Maynes performed in the Barron Theatre 19th-20th April, during Mermaids’ Shakespeare festival, which marks 400 years since the Bard’s death. These two wildly differing descriptions are merged by the play: telling the story of Pistorius’ trial in the style of, as it’s subtitle describes, “A Shakespearean Tragedy”.
To its benefit, the concept is brilliant as, even if it were to fail, it would present itself as an interesting academic exercise. Merging Renaissance convention with a popular and horrifying scandal is certainly novel. On the other hand, the concept requires charging wildly and without protection into a direct comparison with the undisputed master of the English language. Contrast, from lack of understanding or ability, could produce a very uncomfortable viewing experience. It’s impressive that the publicity of the play invited this comparison so brazenly, but what’s even more impressive is the writing.
The script, of course, has shortcomings, Seeing as the play was only about an hour long, written by a student and performed at a pretty specific festival, I lay the blame at the feet of the constraints the play is under. Pacing was a problem, as well as the rapid, sometimes unexpected, shifting of emotional states of the characters. If you were inclined to care, it could be confidently argued that the structure is far more in line with one of Shakespeare’s epic histories, rather than a tragedy. And to be even more trivial; the use of rhythm felt limited to getting the iambs mostly right. Regardless, the script’s way with words is wonderful, filled with beautiful phrases I wish I could quote – only absent in this review because, lacking a transcript, I do not want to get them wrong – that run deep with meaning both for characters and anyone listening.
Pistorius removes any political and racial controversy from the narrative in order to present it’s own story for entertainment’s sake. It focuses on a story about a man victimized by his family, his flesh, and eventually even the public, despite his impressive achievements. On the other side is a broken family whose only justice comes from managing to bring down the image of a national hero to a monster.
A challenge of such a script however, is that Shakespearean language (and a script that hasn’t been studied in classrooms) can prove difficult to hear and understand correctly if actors are not articulate enough and clear with their meaning. Certain members of the cast excelled with this, especially the Aunt (Catriona Scott) and the prosecutor, Nel (Maddie Inskeep), who consistently showed a complete understanding of the script and conveyed it to the audience. Others, especially the lead, Pistorius (Jon White), were much harder to understand, a particular disappointment given the beauty of the script.
Acting as a whole was a mixed bag. Jon White was not just hard to understand, but seemingly only conveyed emotion via the volume of his voice, which remained at about the same level for the entire play, except an unexpected and oddly placed outburst. Many actors grappled with the text and the character far better, to give far more enjoyable and understandable performances.
The amount there is to say about the positive aspects of this play may understate the impact of the negative ones, and as such I should clearly say that there were several. The audience was often brought out of the play by lengthy interrupting scene transitions, pacing issues, some lacklustre performances and a poor use of space, with movement often looking unnatural. A few of these are forgivable given the ambitious nature of the project and difficulties with the nature of the script. Others are less forgivable. Depending on the viewer, these could either ruin the play, or simply be an irritating, occasional distraction from focusing on the far more enjoyable qualities, such as a beautiful script, Maynes’s script shows an appreciation and a capable mimicry of Shakespeare’s methodical manipulation of the English language to bring out the relatable in un-relatable situations.