Off West End Review

Nuclear War – Royal Court

nuclear war

Simon Stephens has collaborated with choreographer and movement director Imogen Knight to present a 45-minute experimental piece, fusing together words and movement, song and dance.

The characters are unnamed, words are unspoken and the plot undefined. Instead, he offers ‘a series of suggestions for a piece of theatre’ that is open to interpretation – not just by the audience, but from the collaborators too. Though the meaning is up for grabs, in Knight’s production there’s an undeniable sense of grief and isolation.

She presents Maureen Beattie sat in her knickers in the flickering light: desolate, sleep deprived and broken. The haunting echoes of the sixties country song ‘33rd August’ play in the background, and there is a palpable sense of loneliness. The lyrics are drowned out by her internal thoughts ‘I wake up and can’t help feeling you’re in my room,’ as she inhales the scent of a worn shirt.

As the title suggests, its war, but not in a literal sense. This is personal devastation. The effects of nuclear warfare are immediate and catastrophic, and – if you survive – you’re left with long-lasting wounds of destruction.

nuclear war

We experience a woman’s struggle through her daily life, where she desperately longs to escape the numbness of her grief and find the physical intimacy she craves. She wanders the streets and the pulse of the city overwhelms her. The sounds deafen and roar and the lights dazzle and blind. At points, the intensity is so fierce your heart vibrates with every bass note.

A gang of shadowy figures follow and haunt her wherever she goes. They personify her feelings of suffocation with hoods, tights and gas masks. ‘One little second. Two little seconds. Three little seconds.’  It’s frightening, yet they’re an oddly comforting presence too – a reminder that she feels alive. They are the whisperings of her internal thoughts and they dance and convulse like the aftershocks of death. Its exquisite physical theatre that’s deeply affecting and unsettling.

Although the performance is completely absorbing, at times it feels a tad whacky and vague and I wasn’t entirely sure of its reference. I feel that was probably Stephens’ intention. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The whisperings and songs from the chorus are occasionally misjudged and cause the audience to laugh, when it feels like we’re meant to be witnessing a sensitive moment.

However, Knight’s compilation comes together as a beautiful thing. Her direction on movement is carefully crafted, and executed to heighten each moment and mood to gorgeous effect. It still feels very experimental rather than a finished work, but it’s thrilling to see theatre of this nature – pushing the boundaries and allowing such freedom between collaborators.

Nuclear War runs until 6th May at the Royal Court.

(Photo courtesy of Chloe Lamford)

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