Dark and beautifulHeywood Society

The Saturnalia experience commenced with a wizened porter smoking outside the entrance to Peterhouse who, when I told him I was here for Saturnalia, exclaimed "You’re not with them are you?" before letting me pass like a bemused and resigned Gandalf. Audience members were greeted at the plodge by members of the Saturnians, an all-female drinking society bedecked in classical garb, and guided to the entrance of the Fellows' Garden. 

Through interactions with members of the Heywood Society – or rather the Saturnian and Saturn drinking societies – the integers of the drama were established, from seeking out the Tab whistleblower to critiquing the excessive initiations. The actors did not exactly blend in with the audience members, wearing their (sparse) Greco-Roman clothing, but they moved seamlessly in and out, establishing rapport and conversing, both to establish action and drama and further enrich the scene of the hedonistic garden party.

Highlights included the groundsman who apparently owned the gardens and insisted on offering audience members actual grass and tea bags. A mysterious woman wandered round doing visceral poetry readings – her performance to my friend and I amongst the flowers in the garden was riveting. There were numerous loud and vicious fights occurring among the actors, including the Saturnian President who was caught by her drinking society boyfriend getting up to no good in the bushes. The subsequent ruckus was observed with amusement by on-looking audience members. The character Electra was both entertaining and menacing as she stormed around the gardens swearing and cackling, gleefully accusing her fellow Saturnians of various sexual exploits.  Indeed, audience members were not only privy to revelations and confrontations, but also overheard general gossip as the various characters running around were fleshed out with back-stories.

The initiations were extreme and outrageous: they were as much a satire of drinking societies and the stereotypes associated with them, as they were challenges to the audience, as we were made to observe degrading and provocative acts. Indeed, as the experience continued, the actors dropped hints about how shocking some of the initiations were which led some of the audience members to shout out and become more involved in the drama. 

While the various narrative threads and the passion of the actors were admirable, on occasion the acting and interacting felt contrived and strained.  The evening acts as a theatrical experience that inevitably involves actors and spectators, but the most entertaining and amusing drama occurred when the action was performed as if it was unobserved, rendering it more organic. The experience became more believable and enthralling for the audience when the action was more spread out, with several scenes unfolding at once in different places in the garden. In one such scene, I caught a glimpse of a Saturnian initiate sitting alone with a distraught look on her face, while everyone acted normally around her.

Saturnalia is certainly an original and unusual theatrical experience, and choosing to lambast, satirise or even relish drinking societies and the urban myths that envelop them, was entertaining. However, the immersive experience often left me cold as a result of its ultimately contrived nature. Its absurd elements were less involving and thought-provoking, becoming affected and laboured. Overall it was an entertaining evening, just not an entirely immersive one.