Shakespeare once wrote, “A man can die but once.” But is this always true? M.L. Rio’s novel “If We Were Villains” is a thrilling story of love, drama and murder, all of which take place within the mysterious halls of Dellecher Classical Conservatory. The story follows the lives of seven students trying to give due justice to the timeless works of Shakespeare and earn their place in the spotlight of his best works.
“If We Were Villains” is told from the perspective of Oliver, a quiet, introspective former drama student who has just been released from a 10-year prison sentence after the harrowing events during his final year at the Conservatory. Detective Colborne, defeated after years of pursuing a murderer he cannot seem to find, comes to Oliver one last time, begging him to recount the events that took place a decade before, events that took the life of a fellow student and changed the course of Oliver’s life forever.
Oliver slowly leads Detective Colborne (and the reader) through the shadowy maze of relationships and events that had transpired between him and his six friends — Richard, Meredith, Filippa, Alexander, Wren and his best friend and roommate, James.
Each of Oliver’s classmates easily embodies the stereotypes so often found on stage: tyrant, temptress, jack-of-all-trades, villain, ingénue and hero. This leaves Oliver somewhere in the middle. He is never quite good enough to land a lead role in the many Shakespeare plays his school exclusively performs, but never bad enough to be kicked out either.
At the beginning of his senior year as an acting student at the Conservatory, Oliver quickly discovers that with the final year of school comes competition and ambition like never before. Along with daily classes, monologues to memorize and stage-shows to audition for, all the seniors are instructed to perform in selected scenes from several of Shakespeare’s plays during the holidays.
The twist is, they do not know which of their classmates is playing the other characters and must keep their own role a secret. It is only when they step into the unconventional performance space (be it on a midnight beach or a glittering ballroom) that it is revealed which of the seniors will be playing the other characters.
When an unexpected power shift occurs within the group as a result of one of these performances, and when excessive amounts of alcohol are imbibed, one of their own falls under “the gloomy shade of death.” The friend group — now with only six members — will do whatever it takes to keep the police and each other from finding out who did it.
Rio uses beautifully descriptive passages to bring the world of Dellecher Classical Conservatory to life. The buildings, woods, lakes and performances practically peel off the page, filling the air around you with the sound of rustling paper, whispered lines, the smell of damp leaves and the palpable tension backstage before a performance.
In sections of rapid banter, Rio formats the dialogue how it is written in a script:
Richard: Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed—
Filippa: Spare us.
Richard: Early morning and all that.
Alexander: He says, as if he’s concerned.
The dialogue is written like lines on a page, creating not only the sounds of friends in casual conversation, but a visualization for the reader of how they are supposed to be read: quickly, and one directly after the other. For a theater enthusiast (which I am), this was a new and exciting way to experience dialogue in a novel.
Instead of being divided into chapters, “If We Were Villains” is split into scenes and acts like a play, which further blurs the line between a traditionally written novel and a performance.
The characters often quote Shakespeare in day-to-day situations. Oliver and James have entire conversations using lines memorized from the countless plays they have performed throughout their years at school. The depth of their friendship is obvious, as they develop their own kind of, what Rio calls, “pidgin-English.”
Rio uses direct quotes from Shakespeare’s works as well as modified quotes, like one might use in everyday speech. To signify these moments and to give credit to the famous playwright, she uses italics instead of quotations. Although this might seem unconventional, if you give it some consideration, it makes sense; quotations would slow the flow of speech and complicate an already complicated plot.
“If We Were Villains” does an excellent job hiding who was killed and who the murderer was; it is done to such a degree that it can be frustrating at times, because you realize just how little you know about what happened. The story is shrouded in subterfuge, not unlike the deadly schemes of “Julius Caesar,” and sprinkled with an uncanny foreboding, akin to the witches in “Macbeth.” This sense of unease permeates the whole novel and can be difficult to swallow at times.
I had to reread several passages to understand what was trying to be conveyed. The last few scenes drove me to tears of both frustration and sadness. I had to read the epilogue many times and do research online before I fully understood what occurred. But these things pale in comparison to my experience with the novel as a whole.
“If We Were Villains” is absolutely striking in its use of language and imagery to develop a world of complex relationships, vivid emotional journeys and true appreciation for Shakespeare and his craft. As an actor, this story holds a special place in my heart.
Regardless of if Rio was born with a pen in hand or worked her way up to such a high level of talent, this novel is a display of greatness. She successfully leads you on a dark, psychological journey, deep in the minds of those who are desperate to do whatever it takes to protect the ones they love.
“If We Were Villains” is the first officially published work by Rio, a self-proclaimed Shakespeare enthusiast and lover of both books and the theatre. She studied Shakespeare from King’s College London and has played characters ranging from Richard III to the fairy queen, Titania.
After finishing “If We Were Villains,” I just wanted to throw it against a wall. And then pick it up and squeeze it tight to my chest. And then throw it again. Although the book is frustrating at times, its refusal to give me the information I wanted only added to the suspense, and I’m sure your experience will be a similar one.