The game-changing play comes to the ADCPaul Ashley with permission for Varsity

Molly on Cambridge Theatre

“What’s your opinion on how people watch theatre in Cambridge?” 

That’s the question Theo Chen asks me over a Teams call, fighting against poor connection and the background mumbling of train announcements. We’re discussing the upcoming ADC mainshow, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, and I suddenly realise that I don’t actually know what goes through my brain when I’m watching the latest ADC offering. In high school drama class, I was told theatre elicits two responses, broadly: intellectual or emotional. Theatre can entertain or it can inform. It’s naive, naturally, to think a piece of theatre must do one of these two things; never both, or neither, at the same time. Still, I often find myself ambling out of amdrams, turning over a very respectable offering in my mind, and finding my response is limited to how it made me ‘feel’. If a piece of stand-up made me snort, it’s as if that’s prohibitive to thinking about any deeper meaning it might have held. Equally, I’ve found myself over-intellectualising. When I watched Titus Andronicus last spring, I was so caught up in an argument about the style and staging of the attack on Lavinia that I forgot the exact atrocity I had just witnessed. So when Theo asks, it’s no surprise that my answer is that we're watching theatre all wrong. 

"I don’t actually know what goes through my brain when I’m watching the latest ADC offering"

Don’t get me wrong, it’s unavoidable to occasionally be so overcome with emotion that you forget why you’re crying in the first place. A very wise Tumblr post was once cited in a supervision, when an academic asked what good poetry should be. “Good poetry,” said my friend, “makes you scream on your kitchen floor.” The same is certainly true for good theatre, yet this pithy little phrase also encapsulates the perils of viewership. Screaming on a kitchen floor over something you’ve read seems deceptively like an emotional response, but it’s not. It’s intellectual too. The very act of being moved is proof of a negotiation with a text, of meeting it on some analytical level, and figuring out exactly why it’s going to be able to so thoroughly destroy you; or make you laugh, make you furious, or even watch you right back. To be moved by theatre is an intellectual response; to have what seems like a cool-headed, analytic impression of a piece is to have your emotions played in another, equally vital way. This binary problem is exacerbated when it comes to student theatre. We’re so desperate to put our critic’s hat on, to pick a piece to pieces (try saying that three times fast), that we often sidestep what could have been genuine emotional correspondence. 

"The very act of being moved is proof of a negotiation with a text"

This question of ‘watching right’ haunts the Fairview team. Run an eye over the show’s Instagram, and you’ll see that the cast were announced via a single close-up shot of one of their eyes, flickering as if on an old, static-filled TV set. Even with my minimal knowledge of the show – Theo’s being cagey about spoilers – I’d wager that every character is defined by, even reduced to, their ability for perception. But ideas of sight and seeing aren’t simple promo. The team are running a post-show ‘rapid write & response’ workshop on Friday 16th February. Viewership is a means to creativity, or perhaps, creativity is a way of dealing with what we’ve witnessed… I guess we’ll find out. 

Look. I'm not saying the way we watch theatre is broken. I'm just saying (ADC crowd, please don't hurt me) it needs some tweaking. It's not our fault, not entirely. The way we've been taught to watch theatre, either with everything we've got or clinical removal, just isn't sustainable, not if we want the experience to retain some joy. Equally, if we continue on with this either/or response, I'd wager that creatives are going to get irate, tired, or even stop bothering. The cure? Well, there's no simple fix. But next time you sit down at the ADC, Corpus Playroom, or watch your friend's ill-advised monologue on why you need to go clubbing with them, think about what exactly you're bringing to the performance, and, more importantly, how you're going to go about taking something away.

Theo on Fairview

I have to be cagey about spoilers because Fairview remains the only play I’ve ever watched where I wish I had gone in with a blank slate, and let its wicked intelligence and mounting audacity wash over me. Instead, I’d found out about the play from its reviews, so knew most of the tricks it had up its sleeve. Luckily there was nothing that could compare to experiencing it in person with other people, and that is what made it the most stimulating experience I have ever had at the theatre. It was like no play I had ever watched, nor like anything I’ve watched since - it completely shifted the way I respond to any piece of art.

"Fairview remains the only play I’ve ever watched where I wish I had gone in with a blank slate"

The play's contemporary nature allows it to speak directly to its audiences. Written between 2015 and 2018, the play breathes the same air we do. Audiences today are inundated with information at all times - the play manages to compress all that information into recognizable glimpses, and uses it to gently push its audience to reassess the world around them. 


Mountain View

Foresight: a review in hindsight

Which is not to say that any play can’t do the same thing - and of course, one of the beauties of engaging with art is to derive the universal from the specific. However, there does exist a distinct lack of contemporary playwriting in Cambridge theatre. Not that Shakespeare isn’t fantastic - but we are obsessed, to the extent that we are not keeping our fingers on the pulse of contemporary playwriting.  Fairview is a production for an inquisitive audience because of how well it sets itself up for conversation: it’s a play that demands to be talked about. But, not in the individual way that a lot of intellectual exploration is conducted in universities. Every audience member brings a different perspective to the production. Why would you sit in the library alone, pouring over a reading list, trying to digest academic theory when you could be parsing it out with others having seen those theories tested on stage? 

"Fairview is a play that demands to be talked about"

The play’s capacity for thought is a natural springboard into conversation. And the team behind Fairview is keen to capitalise on this. We have organised panel discussions after performances of the show to shift the way audiences engage with the theatre they see. Everyone says they’d like to discuss a show, but it's easy to get swept up catching up with friends in the pub after a trip to the theatre. By making post-show engagement a structured part of the theatrical experience, we want to challenge audiences to face the difficult questions the play throws up, and the potential discomfort it asks us to work through. Fairview uses theatre as a conduit to kickstart those conversations - and whether you ask questions at post-show dialogues, or start a conversation with someone next to you at the bar - you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t come down to the ADC Theatre, watch the show, and then - made sure you talked about it. 

Fairview plays at the ADC Theatre from February 13th-17th, at 7:45pm. Find out more about its post-show programmes at