Review: After Midnight, Before Dawn

DramaSoc grips its audience with scenes of witchcraft and satanic worship in their performance of After Midnight, Before Dawn

Six people condemned for witchcraft. Fifty minutes spent in their company. Every moment inching them a step closer to their hanging at dawn.

This week at the Drama Barn, DramaSoc stages a chilling rendition of David Campton’s After Midnight, Before Dawn. As its minimalist title would suggest, this play is a bit of a compact dose. It is performed in less than an hour in an area of 5 x 10 metres. However, the dense twists and turns of this production will certainly not have you clutching at straws. As the steady hands of the clock proceed, the well-paced action, dialogue, and seamless staging imply the equally steady hands of the production team. The controlled finesse of the piece means that rather than becoming lost in the fear and loathing of 16th Century England, we find ourselves rapt in it.

She plagues the stage with devilish grins and bizarre questions like a satanic Cheshire Cat.

As one might expect of a play about the witch hunts written in the late 1970s, this isn’t a play about witch hunts. Many audience members will be familiar with the example of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. For Miller, a context of religious fanaticism provided a great source of material to point fingers at the loons of his own time. The same fertile ground is subtly probed in Campton’s script. Instead of a society, our subject is a situation: the bleak inescapability of a shameful death, the lack of an explanation for that suffering beyond the whims of superstition, and having to share the last moments of your life with five other individuals, all equally terrified to the brink of insanity at the prospects of their fate.

DramaSoc’s rendition of this highly-fraught and emotional piece must certainly be commended – not least for the humility of the direction in taking cues from the writer. The stagecraft (theatre-in-the-round) allowed the trauma of the play to aggressively drive the audience right into their front row seats. Furthermore, the script was well respected. The roles were carefully constructed so as to create a cast comprised of plot elements: if you mute one part, the whole suffers. This structure was so thorough, and so conscientiously kept to, that, to do it justice as a reviewer, one is almost forced to indulge in a clunky roll-call.

‘Calm Woman’ sadistically preys on the desperation of her cellmates. This pivotal performance is delivered by the exceptionally talented Golfo Migos. She plagues the stage with devilish grins and bizarre questions like a satanic Cheshire Cat. Andrew Frampton’s ‘Man’ (better would be ‘Angry Man’) stomps around the stage in an effectively climactic rendition of confusion and rage. Like Frampton, Alice Tones displays skill at using the performance space strategically in her portrayal of ‘Neat Woman’. Her maternal concern for ‘Boy’ is sensitively devised – a weak light of goodness fated to be snuffed out by the all-consuming hysteria of those around her. ‘Boy’ is played by Anthony Rickman, who depicts a commendable drowning man on dry land. Whipped, beaten and torn, he also shows off the best Halloween effects that the YUSU budget can provide. In seriousness though, the makeup in this production is the finest that I have seen from DramaSoc thus far.

Photo by Harry Elletson
Photo by Harry Elletson

The dreadful and awesome energy of the piece is overwhelming.

No play, however little time it has to err, is flawless. There were a number of minor issues that simply needn’t be delved into as they didn’t impact the overall effect of the play. Some other problems, however, call to be expanded upon. At the opening of the production, the ball is dropped. The atmosphere at the entrance is, without a doubt, the best I’ve ever experienced at the Barn: a disorientating stage lamp shines down a narrow corridor, whilst an intimidating jailor stalks back and forth within the gloom.

To transition from this into a brightly lit area with six static figures is a huge dampener. The blocking is a great highlight throughout the entirety of the subsequent action, but it is sadly absent from the uninspired beginning. Katie Fozzard’s ‘Girl’, who opens the dialogue, almost manages to re-establish the chilling atmosphere with her expressive and hauntingly desperate “Our Father”. However, this fails to make up for other elements in the piece which can only be described, somewhat apologetically, as amateurish. Enunciation is so crucial to a turn-of-the-century 16th century English script, and yet it is not maintained by many of the cast members throughout the performance. Furthermore, there are moments when some of the actors do not appear to feel entirely comfortable with their roles.

However, the majority of these issues are likely to simply be the result of first-show nerves. After Midnight, Before Dawn is a gem of a production which can’t help but bring the bad of student theatre along with the good. Perhaps the flat beginning aims, somewhat, not to steal the thunder of the tremendous ending. By the time that the cast members are dancing in a circle invoking Satan in a cacophony of wretched shrieks, the dreadful and awesome energy of the piece is overwhelming. This play may not be impressive in the extreme, but it is certainly moving in the extreme. Actors and direction effectively present the multiplicity of Campton’s bleak experiment; an experiment of what happens to the human psyche in that terribly short space before dawn when it is up against a wall.