Review - The Death of Empedocles
Votive Theatre has clearly carefully chosen its first piece of classical drama. The plot is split into three, starting with Empedocles and her need to escape to the slopes of Mt. Etna due to her struggles within the world she is confined to. Two characters try, in their own ways, to convince her to stay, one pleading to emotion and one to power, and yet their efforts are fruitless as she disappears off on her journey, the title of the show telling us the fate that awaits her.
Before I even properly begin, a special mention must go out to the poster design. The use of the cast within the poster is so rarely done in oxford drama and when it is done it always stands out. The striking photography and careful poses make it look like it could be from a fashion shoot. It didn't give much away but sold the impact of the show and was immediately eye catching.
With my link to watch the show came a warning about the sound quality which made me worry for what was about to happen. However, despite the acknowledged microphone issues, I only found myself unable to hear what was being said a couple of times and with the added captions it became a non-issue. Other moments unfortunately felt choppy with tracks from different takes noticeably cutting back and fourth as well as moments of dead quiet with no general atmospheric sound to fill the space. Time spent balancing the music paid off with the gentle string composition by Niki Pasolini Dall'Onda flowing between lines carrying the emotion through pauses and giving way to the monologues above. Its use whenever Empedocles is withdrawing from society created a theme of loss and separation that was used again in the closing minutes of the show to reinforce the inevitability of the choice that was made.
The full use of the architecture of the Holywell Music Room allowed for blocking to be more dynamic using both the main hall as well as the corridors and staircases around the building. The first section used more traditional staging on the halls stage using the piano between the camera and Empedocles to create emotional separation. This is then contrasted by the more intimate tight spaces of the second which then returns to the main concert hall where the third has a shifting power dynamic using the tiered seating levels.
There were stunning visual moments throughout the piece with frames as good as pictures. These moments were chosen well in monologues and important beats however between these it felt like it was just setting up the next moment and that less thought had gone into the continuous visual style. This may be due to Kunal Patel's background in photography as the moments that were focused on would make excellent stills. The reliance on handheld camera operating was noticeable due to the shake in many of the transitional moments. A warp stabilise effect or similar was used in the static scenes to create a still image but this actually caused a jump in the image as it zoomed in to give it the ability to do the stabilisation. At first i thought it was YouTube buffering but when it happened a few times I had just wished they had put the effect on throughout both to reduce the shake in movement shots as well as avoid the jarring jump in zoom. Other camera movement such as slow camera push ins, used throughout, created emotional connection with the characters and mirrors the audience being drawn in by the acting on stage.
The lighting in the piece was heavily reliant on daylight through the windows of the building. This light streaming in from a high angle and casting a cold wash over the room was part of creating the muted and pensive atmosphere that persisted throughout the show. However it is notoriously difficult to film primarily reliant on the sun, and some scenes had mismatches in levels and angles which showed the process of filming while losing light. The heavy reliance on this one source resulted in many shots loosing detail or being washed out. In the second section where Pausanias appeals to emotion we move into a warmer room nicely showing the warmth and bond shared between the characters. However in shot we see a bounce as well as an LED panel which breaks the naturalism demonstrated by the use of the sun as a major source.
A refreshingly timeless piece of theatre now immortalised in film. It forges its own path instead of re-treading the path of classical-based productions that many avoid watching. If you are one of these, give this show a chance, and if Votive continues like this it could well convince many to tread back into the world of classical theatre.
Written by - H. Dovell