The Earthworks/Myth review at the Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘mischievously deceptive’
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Spring Mischief festival is aptly named: the two short plays which make up the bulk of the festival of new writing initially seem like conventional domestic comedies, but belie more playful, complex ideas, teasing out themes of human comprehension and responsibility in the face of loss and disaster.
Tom Morton-Smith’s The Earthworks is a minor-key follow-up to his immensely successful Oppenheimer, set on the eve of the activation of the Large Hadron Collider. The play follows Clare (Lena Kaur), a journalist frustrated with her unfulfilling job and struggling to comprehend the nuts and bolts of the LHC, as she befriends a research associate, Fritjof (Thomas Magnussen) and tries to get him to talk science to her. Over the course of the night they get to know each other, and personal secrets are revealed.
The play’s romcom sheen feels slightly disingenuous at first, and this isn’t helped by an oddly forced performance from Kaur and a cringe-inducing choreographed sex scene. But it gains a level of touching profundity when Morton-Smith introduces particle physics as a conceptual tool through which to filter human emotion.
Fritjof carries with him a pane of ‘slow glass’, an incredibly dense material capable of slowing down and essentially trapping light, which becomes a potent metaphor for the ghosts we carry around with us. It’s a neat piece of writing – perhaps too neat – but it knows how to mine the human heart.
For its first half-hour, Kirsty Housley and Matt Hartley’s ‘theatrical experiment’, Myth, does not seem very boundary-pushing. We’ve seen this before: an affluent couple hosting a dinner party, unwanted guests, too much wine, heated arguments, a critique of materialism, gentrification and class. This could have been written by Alan Ayckbourn. But then the actors reset the stage and begin the play again. This time, thick black oil seeps menacingly from all corners of Rosanna Vize’s intricately booby-trapped set, and dead birds drop like anvils from the ceiling. The veneer of character melts into sweat as the actors struggle to stay cool amid the collapsing performance.
The elephant in the room, and titular ‘myth’, is climate change. Our daily concerns are petty compared with impending environmental catastrophe, the play says, and we ignore this at our own cost. It makes no claims to subtlety, and one has to admire its unabashed audacity. It impressively uses an unusual form to pull the rug from under its audience and amplify and alter its content. It’s also great fun, and the actors – especially Rebecca Humphries as the agitated host, Sarah – seem to really enjoy themselves as they juggle the farcical technicalities of Housley’s production.