Lewis Owen's performance was a laudable effortLaura Wells

“Should Cellini’s murders shut our eyes to his works? Does it tear him from his podium of genius? Or was it in fact genius that drove him to kill?” Master-Stroke, an innovative new piece of student theatre, is full of thought-provoking dialogue. Written and directed by Victor Rees, Master-Stroke chronicles the true story of Victorian artist Richard Dadd, who was diagnosed to be of ‘unsound mind’ and imprisoned in 1843 after he murdered his father. Dadd was known for his depictions of fairies and other supernatural subjects, often rendered with obsessively minuscule detail. He created his most celebrated work, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, during his incarceration in the infamous psychiatric hospital Bedlam, and it is this period of Dadd’s life that Rees reproduces on the Fitzpatrick Hall stage.

The play felt completely at home in the highly intimate and claustrophobic setting of the Fitzpatrick Hall. Two rows of chairs sat on either side of a small raised platform, with the actors within touching distance of the audience. On the platform, two chairs, an easel, and a sparse scattering of torn papers. This minimalist staging worked well; it was claustrophobic and didn’t distract. Lighting, though simple, was prompt and effective.

Owen made what could have easily become a caricature of a madman laudably three-dimensional

The progress of the play rested heavily on Lewis Owen, playing Richard Dadd. Owen made what could have easily become a caricature of a madman laudably three-dimensional. His physical mannerisms and introspective tone of voice rendered him extraordinarily believable, and his ability to oscillate between the slightly anxious to the frantically overwrought was effective and jarring. The time and effort I’m sure he put into developing his character was evident from his performance. Bathsheba Lockwood-Brook, playing Dadd’s fellow Bedlam patient Jane, was equally commendable in her role; unlike Owen, who is nervous and contemplative, Lockwood-Brook is brash and outspoken. The two actors rose to the momentous challenge of playing “criminal lunatics” and managed to bring more than just a perpetuation of the stereotype. Credit for the portrayal of these characters should not only go to Owen and Lockwood-Brook, but also Rees, for giving both Dadd and Jane such depth in his script and directorial vision. Their scenes together demonstrated some of the best of Rees’ dialogue as well as his direction.

Other scenes, however, did drag. Joe Edwards made a pleasingly stern and haughty Dr Hood, but conversations between the different doctors often became tedious and static – dialogue here could have been punchier. Injecting more movement into the blocking as well as more variety in the delivery of lines would have helped these scenes run a little faster and made the characters a more interesting. While not much projection was needed in such a small venue, there were occasions where some of the actors failed to enunciate sufficiently, or trailed off at the end of sentences, making some dialogue incomprehensible. The structure of the play, moreover, didn’t always make sense to me – after the final climatic scene between Jane and Dadd, the following scenes, despite showcasing some more impressive dialogue and acting, felt like unnecessary afterthoughts. A clearer and more balanced plot arc would have made the play easier to follow.


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Yet, overall, Rees coped well with difficulty of bringing a true story to the stage. His script shows aspects of real accomplishment – I particularly enjoyed the recurring motif of the song. Through Richard Dadd, he raises interesting questions about the brutal treatment of mental illness in the Victorian era as well as the relationship between crime and genius, using this case study of an invariably talented man who doesn’t know how to accept his crime.

Master-Stroke is an ambitious piece of theatre which shines most clearly in its characterisation. Impressive writing and impressive acting combines to make a haunting recreation of life in a Victorian asylum in Queens’ Fitzpatrick Hall.

Master-Stroke was on at the Fitzpatrick Hall  23-24 May

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