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Manfred: After Lord Byron

The dramatic conception of bringing a Romantic poem to the stage will be truly original entertainment, writes William Haines.

“We are the fools of Time and Terror: Days

Steal on us, and steal from us; yet we live,

Loathing our life, and dreaming still to die.”

Ask almost any student director why they chose the play they did, and you will be told: “I wanted to do something different.” “Different” usually means “my own version of self-indulgent, group devised, conceptualised psycho-drama” – in other words “exactly the same as usual but with more me in it”. In Finn Davis’ case however, he really meant different, for there is no other way to characterise the attempt to bring a 1,300 line Romantic poem to the stage. Even if it turns out to be more self-indulgent, group devised, conceptualised psychodrama, Manfred: After Lord Byron will be very, very different, not least because of how much Finn Davis there will be in it.

For those of you who don’t know the current enfant terrible of the Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) world, Davis has two major passions – The Beatles, and the occult. Coming straight out of a collaboration with playwright David Potter where they brought The Beatles to the stage, Davis thought it was time to focus on the side of him that thinks trench-coats, beaten antique briefcases and magically endowed Roman jewellery are all must haves. “I wouldn’t say I knew exactly what I wanted the show to be about, but I knew I wanted something epic, and something supernatural,” Davis says.

Enter John Dunk, SUDS resident intellectual, (he’s doing honours, seriously) who thought Byron would be the man for the job. After a reading of Manfred by candlelight with writer David Potter, they decided the poem must be brought to the stage.

Seemingly the only aspect of the production Davis and Dunk agree on is why it had to happen.

“It is simultaneously an elegy for, and a hymn to, human consciousness. A bemoaning of parched post-industrial life combined with the desire to reconcile oneself to it,” says Dunk. Davis thinks the line “The hand of death is on me, but not yours” could well be used both to epitomise the play, and explain why it is “relevant”.

Their adapted script retains the Faustian affects but brings out a Hitchensesque attempt to confront mortality while retaining one’s independence from greater forces.

This is a play about human freedom. The directors are adamant that this is not just Manfred on stage, explaining why they have chosen to say “after Lord Byron” not “by Lord Byron”. They have “taken chess pieces and turned them into real characters”.

Strictly speaking, this is very much against the spirit of the poem, but in general Dunk and Davis have refused to tie themselves down conceptually. No definitive decisions were made on what techniques to use in performance of a poem; no definitive decisions were made on how Romantic imagery could be brought to life visually.

“No, no the music isn’t really Romantic,” sound designer Travis Ash says. “Well I suppose it sort of is, it’s trying to do the same things.” He get’s excited: “But it’s grungy, really grungy… lots of bass!”

Order from chaos seems to be their guiding principle, as Dunk characteristically arrives late and then explains that Davis is a “precocious preschooler” and shouldn’t be listened to, while David Potter sits up the back in a black turtle neck quietly trying to insert Lacanian overtones. Fraught with monetary concerns, changes in the production team, aesthetic squabbling and neurotic script changes, the success of this play would prove the Romantic belief that true art comes from spontaneous fountains of originality.

The whole team is brimming with confidence, however. Designer Michaela Savina says that while the budget prevented her from creating the eight metre papier-mâché mountains of her dreams, and while she couldn’t afford five smoke machines, the final set does capture the supernatural and disassociated sentiments within the play. Expect to see spirits appearing and disappearing into a set made of exactly the same materials as their costumes. She characterises it as a “great white expanse,” which will certainly be a welcome relief from the “great black expanse” common in fashionable black-box theatre.

Leading man Patrick Morrow explains that the lack of definitive style has been hugely helpful, as the play is too “multifarious” to be stylised, and it has enabled him to draw on his experience with Shakespeare, Greek tragedy and Buto to create something unique.

Understandably, he claims to be “super petrified”. The complexity and length of the role of Manfred is what has kept it off the stage up until now, and Morrow (with a wicked grin) admits that previously he has “played shallow or callous characters, which are so easy … so rewarding.”

In a world of forgettable theatre, Manfred is a show not to be missed. It is the most audacious, original and energetic major production SUDS has attempted in a number of years. Cast and crew alike managed to instill confidence in me that this show, while perhaps at times confused, is going to be highly entertaining. For me this show represents a synthesis, combining the current generation’s taste for the classics with the previous generation’s taste for student writing and devised pieces. It is a feat for which Davis and Dunk are uniquely placed.

“A dream”, says Travis Ash, of the production. “Process and play alike, a huge terrifying dream.”