Fresh from successfully adapting Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ for the West End, playwright Simon Stephens returns to form with his own original piece. It premieres at the Royal Court which has become a fixture for the East London-based writer.
An unnamed woman (played with a convincing nervous energy by Maureen Beattie) finally steps back into the world outside her home after an emotional nuclear fallout from a personal loss. Finding the urban streets, cafes – and the people that inhabit them – overwhelming and then intoxicating, the blood begins to pump in her veins after so long a stasis. Directed by Imogen Knight who is known for her work in choreography means this experimental piece of theatre sees the poetic language of Stephens complemented by the well-managed movement of the remaining four cast members – they interact with the protagonist as a quartet of Greek chorus members as well as the public, claustrophobically pressing in on the woman in the crowded Tube. In a coffee shop tension rises as well as desire, unleashed after so long a suppression. Lee Curran’s sound design is full of thumping bass and heavy heartbeats which perfectly mesh with the dance of bodies lit by the pulsating light design which saturates the intimate set in primary colours – this all results in the audience feeling immersed in the head of this grief-stricken woman.
There are moments of humour in this fragmented abstraction of feelings. The protagonist places ephemeral objects inside a ring of bricks which looks like the building of a ritualistic fire to cleanse her from her past life (no fire is actually lit). Equally amusing was the ceramic cat, one of the few objects on the sparse set which, to me, symbolises the stereotypical single women – the cat was added as fodder for the fire. Depictions of urbanites’ over-consumption is represented by the quartet who consume tangerines by stuffing them into their mouths whilst stockings distort their faces which is deliciously grotesque in its absurdity. Creative freedom abounds on stage due to the playwright’s stage directions for his 12-page script as “a series of suggestions for a piece of theatre” that gives creative licence to the director and actors alike.
A fascinating short experimental play that delves into a human response that will touch everybody’s lives at some point. Because of that, I felt the piece was actually genderless in that it could have been a male protagonist working with Stephen’s pared-back writing to just as powerful an effect. An organic portrayal of the struggles of living in the hope of finding that elusive, all-consuming moment which seemingly stops time.
‘Nuclear War’ runs until the 6th May at The Royal Court Theatre where tickets start at £12. Box office: 020-7565-5000.