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Oxford 2013 Performance

In Jan 2013, the premier performance of Purely Academic was performed in Lady Margaret Hall,Oxford. It was directed by Dr Dimitrina Spencer (who also played Max).

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  • Charles Middleman – Robert Spencer
  • Prof. James Holywell – Colin Burnie
  • Prof. Martin Godson – Joseph Kenneway
  • Prof. Mary Long – Ida Persson
  • Dr. Joanne Cook – Hollie Wright
  • Anna White – Alex Reid
  • Lisa Dawson – Anastasia Economou
  • Prof. Max Williams – Dimitrina Spencer
  • Dr. Mark Collins – David Grimshaw
  • Prof. Robin McNeil – Tom McDermott
  • Prof. Cheryl Blake – Laurie McLellan
  • Father of Charles Middleman – Bjorn Roberts
  • Newsreader – David Abramson
  • Director: Dimitrina Spencer
  • Set: Anastasia Economou and Shonil Bhagwat

Colin Burnie first appeared on stage in 1951 as a daffodil (his last non-speaking role) and later trained at the New College of Speech and Drama in Hampstead. His many past performances include Mirabel in The Way of the World, Tom Jones in Tom Jones, Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (twice), Nicholas in Nicholas Nickleby Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Prospero in The Tempest (four times), Andrew Wyke in Sleuth (twice), Malvolio in Twelfth Night, the Player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (twice), Jaques in As You Like It, King Lear in King Lear, Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and his last portrayal of an academic was as the headmaster, Dr Frobisher in The Browning Version at the Oxford Playhouse.

Dr David Grimshaw was born in Bombay so a certain Bollywood influence in his acting style may be readily apparent. Recent roles have mainly concentrated on playing eccentric pantomime characters including the Sheriff of Nottingham (twice) and Squire Trelawny, so he is finding playing an normal person called Mark quite a challenge. Boos and hisses welcome.

Dr Anastasia Economou’s first and last theatrical play until tonight was at the age of 5 as an angel. Tonight is her comeback.

Joseph Kenneway has been a regular on the Oxford stage since his days as a student. His most recent appearance was in the role of Alan Turing in Breaking the Code – an examination of the conflicted life of the father of modern computing. He has previously played roles that range from a shaven-headed, primitive Caliban in The Tempest to the devout and conscience stricken Reverend Hale in Miller’s The Crucible. Professionally, Joseph is a founder director of TBI, a consultancy offering marketing, brand and business development services to academic publishers, societies and institutions.

Tom McDermott is new to acting. He is in the audience tonight.

Laurie McLellan’s first attempt into acting. Also in the audience tonight.

Ida Persson has performed with various theatre groups in Oxford over a number of years. She most recently played Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” by the Oxford Theatre Guild, and Vita Sackville West in ElevenOne Theatre’s production of “Vita and Virginia”. She is also a member of the sketch comedy group The Dead Secrets, (www.thedeadsecrets.com). Other previous roles include Dorine in La Bete, and Louise in Private Lives (also by ElevenOne Theatre), Mrs. Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Tomahawk), and Beatrice in A View from the Bridge (Oxford Theatre Guild).

Alex Reid has been in many Oxford Theatre Guild productions over the years, including Rosie in Humble Boy, Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Trincula in The Tempest as well as Much Ado About Nothing, Breaking the Code and The Crucible among others. With the Blewbury Players she has played Hermione in A Winter’s Tale, Elizabeth Bennet in Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Rosalind in As You Like It. Other roles for various theatre groups around and about Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire have included Princess of France in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Lady Chiltern in An Ideal Husband, Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Ernest and Liz in Present Laughter.

Björn Roberts last performed on the stage in 1984. His favourite tree is the Ash. His neighbours may have developed a variety of theories about life in his household while he was practicing his role of the Father for this play.

Dr Dimitrina Spencer (Didi) first interviewed Prof David Abramson as part of her ethnographic research project on e-science in 2008; then, they co-edited a special journal theme on e-science management and collaborations and, last summer, they started collaborating on this play. Purely Academic is her return to theatre directing (since her work towards a Minor in theatre studies at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria) inspired by her interest in finding innovative ways to disseminate research findings- Purely Academic forms part of disseminating the results from her Vitae Innovate funded project on emotions in interdisciplinary collaborations. Didi teaches anthropology at Oxford and writes poetry in both English and Bulgarian.

Robert Spencer following a lengthy sabbatical (his last performance was Red Admiral in The Plotters of Cabbage Patch Corner in 1984!), Robert is back playing the troubled Charles Middleman. Relishing the role, he has been boning up on ‘The 48 Laws of Power’ and ‘The Prince’ for inspiration!

Hollie Wright – this is Hollie’s first foray into amateur dramatics for 10 years, having previously played various extras with the Cotswold Arcadians in their Shakespeare productions. Despite having little previous experience she has thoroughly enjoyed being a part of ‘Purely Academic’.


When I was invited to attend the premiere of Purely Academic at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, I confess to feeling a degree of trepidation. A play performed by a cast composed largely of amateurs and written by a debutante playwright whose field is Computer Science? Not guaranteed to be a nailed on transfer to the West End I thought. My first surprise when I arrived, however, was that there was standing room only in a packed hall. More than 120 souls had turned out on a cold weekday night. My second surprise was the quality of the acting – Colin Burnie as Professor J. Holywell  was particularly convincing. And my third surprise was this was actually a well thought-out piece that dealt with ‘live’ issues in academia in an accessible and entertaining fashion. The director, Dimitrina Spencer is also to be congratulated on wrestling with time constraints, a small budget, and a difficult space to produce something eminently watchable. This is not to say the piece is flawless – careful editing, a smarter set, and some appropriate lighting would lend greater credence. And the use of the action and script to convey senses of time and place would reduce disruption to the fourth wall. As an academic who deals in performance and pedagogy, though, what I relished most about Purely Academic was the way in which research findings concerning shady practice and desperate competition in academic life had been translated, in a very interesting way, into performance – the business of ‘ethnodrama’ – that offers real possibilities, in the future, for refinement into a significant pedagogic resource.

Dr Nicholas Monk, Assistant Professor, Deputy Director, IATL, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK.

Purely Academic – a collaboration between Prof David Abramson (Monash University, Australia) and Dr. Dimitrina Spencer (University of Oxford), is a dark tale of machiavellian proportions – and all within the confines of the hallowed halls of academia.  In brief, the story centers on an ambitious and manipulative academic, Charles Middleman, who advances in life guided by overconfidence (and possibly overcompensation for accusations of inadequacy expressed to him by his father) and a knack to inflate his research accomplishments at the expense of colleagues, only to have his comeuppance in the end.

The play resonates with stereotypes and situations that the research community in particular can relate to – who hasn’t encountered an ambitious and self-promoting academic? – but no less relevant to other professional contexts in which competition is a driver to success.

The central character, Middleman, is a fine pastiche of quirks and dubious practices played with a combined assertive and unassuming approach by amateur actor, Robert Spencer.    Middleman’s supervisor, Prof James Holywell, played by Colin Burnie, is a subtle study of a mentor and upright academic, but who is weak in preventing the Middlemass effect.  Colin Burnie’s performance is an engaging and noteworthy one – he appears in nearly every scene and the other actors are well-supported and further-activated by Burnie’s theatrical agility and sensitivity.

The brash Aussie academic, Prof Martin Godson, performed by Joseph Kenneway, is another memorable stereotype, taking advantage of his position and not averse to the suspect use of funding whilst on academic travel.

It deserves mention that Purely Academic sits within a programme of events supported by the Vitae Innovate project fund around the theme of emotional reflexivity (the ability to understand and communicate the meaning and impact of one’s own and others’ emotional experiences).

Purely Academic well-addresses the latter in focusing on research practice, the nature of collaboration, and what it means to be a researcher within the defined norms of academic structures.

Overall, much to think about (as a fellow academic) – a very enjoyable evening which offered many opportunities for reflection.

Dr Ann Borda, Director VeRSI, Melbourne, Australia

This highly portable and thought provoking play far exceeded my expectations when I was fortunate enough to see the opening night performance at LMH. In the portrayal of the academics there were easily recognisable characteristics that I have observed and experienced in various colleagues during my years here in Oxford. However luckily for us, the many negative attributes of the main character, Charles Middleman, are rarely  found concentrated all in one person! During the play, Charles transitioned from a grabbing, inconsiderate, and over ambitious graduate student with limited intellectual powers to a Professor of the same ilk.

The ethical issues raised by the play are highly pertinent, especially in a climate of reduced research funding and the metric based assessments within the Research Excellence Framework (REF). As a vehicle to instigate discussion on the basic values  within research collaborations and across the academic community, I found this play to be highly effective.

Not being a Theatre aficionado, the simple sets and lack of polish on the part of some of the cast did not in any way detract from my engagement with the play or my involvement  in the ‘plot’. In fact I am hoping to book it to be performed in a large seminar room as a graduate Research Skills Session. I anticipate that it will stimulate much discussion among  the students of the Doctoral Training Centre where I work.

Professor Elspeth Garman, University of Oxford

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