Nuclear War review at Royal Court, London – ‘an intriguing experiment’
While Simon Stephens’ prolificacy as a playwright can lead to, shall we say, occasional wibbles in quality, his willingness to experiment, to test himself and his writing, and to collaborate on interesting projects, has resulted in some thrilling work: Three Kingdoms remains a bold and brilliant bridge between UK and European theatre cultures while Sea Wall will stay lodged in my memory forever.
This new project sees him joining forces with movement director Imogen Knight to create a 45-minute fusion of text and dance. Nuclear War has been written as an invitation. The text is there to be messed around with, the line between playwright and director intentionally blurred. A stage direction states: “All of these words may be spoke by the performers but none need to be”.
The results are intriguingly abstract and fragmented, if in the end unsatisfying. There are no named characters, rather we are presented with a person, a woman in this instance, dealing with some unspecified loss – a death maybe, or the collapse of a relationship. There are no nukes but there is fallout. We see her and the things that dog her, the external and the internal.
Knight has done this by placing actor Maureen Beattie on stage with four figures in black, part Greek chorus, part wolf pack. They prowl around on all fours, they flock in corners, they sprint in circles. This leads to a series of strange, striking and, often ominous, images.
These figures feel both a part of the character and part of the city that envelops her. Words get amplified and the whole room pulses to Elizabeth Bernholz’s soundtrack. Speakers are dragged around the stage as electric cables creep across the carpet like living liquorice. There are shards of the domestic in Chloe Lamford’s design, teacups and house bricks; tangerine peel is flung around. Lee Curran’s lighting is also incredibly atmospheric.
The audience sits on mismatched chairs and, by the end of the brief, expressionistic piece, a kind of cairn has formed in the middle of the floor – the last few minutes are touching in their delicacy.
There are times though when the production feels at once rather too focused on servicing the words while at the same time contriving to smother them. Also, and this may say more of me than the piece itself, but when I see people like Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Andrew Sheridan on stage, I want to hear them speak.
Ultimately this feels like watching an experiment play out, a writer and a director feeling their way towards a new way of working together, but still midway through their journey.