UDS’ latest offering, Memento Mori, follows the story of Leo, a gifted scientist who believes he is on the verge of discovering a way to drastically slow the process of ageing. As the funding for his research program comes under threat, Leo is overcome with an obsession to reach his goal, at the cost of his personal relationships and mental health. The play, which loosely re-tells the Epic of Gilgamesh, takes human mortality as its point of departure, and examines ideas surrounding devotion and insanity. If these sound like high concepts, it’s because they are. Memento Mori is not content to examine the mundane.
Such ambitious subject matter demands tremendous artfulness on behalf of the playwright, and UDS’ Rupert Williamson is not always able to deliver. There is something disingenuous about the way we see him touch on sleep, death and desire. Of course these aren’t untouchable topics, but they’re problematic for a first-time writer. Leo represents humanity’s inherent refusal to accept finality in the same obsessive manner as Gilgamesh, finally realising only progeny can immortalise his image. His character acts out a conventional tale of self-consumption, and leaves want for a more profound conclusion. The idea of death presented is a cursory amalgamation of clichés, repeated again and again to make the same hollow point. The two elderly characters, Harold and Davies, exemplify this best – both provide the same typical representation of men who are struggling with the reality of senility, and much of their time on stage is spent articulating the same foregone conclusion. Williamson might have benefited from some editorial minimisation, both in content and concept. Young writers should not be condemned for tackling complex topics, but they must do so in a way that acknowledges their own relative naivety. Memento Mori provides no authentic remark on the high concepts it chooses to discuss, and lacks the self-awareness to realise it could never possibly have done so.
The play is similarly weak in its over-reliance on allusion. The title itself, inserted in grandiose Latin, exists as a warning light for the misplaced discussion on philosophy and literature that is to follow. We are served with more than a few patronising and unnecessary articles of academic onanism. Elaboration on Occam’s razor, Einstein’s time theory, Gilgamesh, Alfred Russel Wallace and Epidemiology land as the forced references of an undergraduate who recently completed an entry level philosophy course. At best these add slightly interesting detail to the story, at worst they are flagrantly pretentious and wholly unnecessary.
If Memento Mori gives us a lacklustre message and some uncomfortable dialogue, it absolutely redeems itself in quality of acting. Though there is no weak performance, Williamson is undoubtedly the most impressive presence on stage. He brilliantly presents the slow disintegration of Leo’s mental state, building to a magical ferocity in the closing scenes. Each time he speaks he commands attention, and even his most slight choices show extreme professionalism and ability. Ritwik Ballal mirrors his energy as the more levelheaded colleague, Damian, and although the role allows for less extreme expression he is a testament to the high standards of UDS. Allegra Di Francesco has the least time on stage, yet creates the most powerful moments of tension as an incarnation of Ninsun. Tim Lorian and Xavier Sweeney are the aforementioned senior characters, Harold and Davies, providing such convincing representations that it is easy forget the actors beneath the makeup are somewhere around twenty years of age. Again, at times they are let down by the awkward dialogue; the most talented of actors couldn’t rescue the spiritless monologue of ‘broken crowns’ provided in the first act. Still, each actor brings a diverse approach to their lines, with well placed energy and nuance of physical expression.
The acting prowess is matched in obvious excellence of direction and set design. UDS veteran Ben Thomas was undoubtedly intensive in his direction of each actor. The set is brilliantly constructed, set up for minimal changes while still allowing for an immersive experience no matter the intended setting. Perhaps the play’s most brilliant element is the enormous scaffold rig which envelops the back wall, holding 12 powerful floodlights. Thomas Drake-Brockman and Anaïs Asotoff are credited with lighting design, and in coordination with the hypnotic soundtrack of Scott Jennings and Thomas they create a true spectacle. Such an overwhelming set-piece ran the risk of overshadowing the whole performance, yet this wasn’t the case. The lights were used sparingly, only three times in the central performance, so that each felt like a novel experience. The hypnotic flash that punctuated Williamson’s climactic confession “I don’t want to die” was gut-wrenching, the most genuinely intense piece of theatre UDS have provided in recent memory.
UDS are to be congratulated for this performance. It showcased the abilities of their actors, as well as the calm professionalism of their production team. Had it the thematic strength and polished dialogue of last season’s Kate, Don’t Scream, this may have been a more complete show. They have the talent, the spirit and the drive to create truly exceptional theatre, and there is no doubt they will do so more comprehensively in the future.
Review by Harry Sanderson