Review: Nuclear War, Royal Court

Published in Exeunt on April 24, 2017

A series of suggestions for a piece of theatre.

All of these words may be spoken by the performers but none of them need to be.

So says the introduction to Simon Stephens’ new play, a short piece directed by choreographer Imogen Knight in which the dance between word and movement that makes up all theatre is foregrounded, and set free.

This is an un-privileging of the word, the text, the writer. It’s a generous move. But it’s also one that reflects the fluidity of the roles of ‘writer’ and ‘director’ anyway – “in all plays there is a blurring,” Stephens suggests.

There’s a woman. It’s seven years to the day since she lost someone: the death of a partner, I think, in hospital (but it’s an elusive text, and production, open to interpretation).

There’s also a chorus of four actor-dancers, who physically create the external crush of the city, and the internal raging of her thoughts. Delivered often in voice-over, the text offers the woman’s interior monologue, while the chorus whisper the “thoughts scratched inside her head”, obsessive reflections mostly on space and time, sex and the inevitability of death. But the woman (Maureen Beattie) also seems sick of her own paralysing grief, and determines to reconnect with the world, to ‘move on’. I put that in quotation marks because it seems a fatuous, self-helpy definition of what here is tenderly turned into a miniature odyssey. She only really gets on the tube and goes to a coffee shop, but it feels like an epic journey.

The modern city is like a jungle, but it’s also a dislocated, fragmented, cruelly capitalist place. Nuclear War isn’t about nuclear war, but it does offer a sickly vision of an atomised, alienated society, a more visceral version of what Stephens was also exploring in Carmen Disruption. Staggering around the city, the woman desperately seeks connection, affection and sexual fulfilment. But the ending, as she returns to her house alone, perhaps suggests that she has to reconnect with herself first – and it is through saying goodbye and letting go of the lost loved one that she is also finally released.

Just as Stephens left the text open, the staging lets images and ideas swirl. At only 45-minutes long, it can feel unsatisfying. I craved a little more character definition or development.

But there’s also something pleasurable in succumbing to a performance which is sensuously rich in every direction. The audience sits on chairs on four sides of the room. Lee Curran’s lighting is a tangible presence, often thick, warm, in uneasy yellows or synthetic sunset shades; it’s used like paint to colour moments. The music by Elizabeth Bernholz – aka Gazelle Twin – is brilliant: pounding electronica that rattles the rafters, judders the rib cage. It can twitchily evoke the niggling stresses of the city, or become a great thumping heartbeat. The amplification and pitch-shifting effects on vocals similarly dunks us into gig territory, a heady way to heighten the internal voice.

Knight’s movement is compelling. There are vicious moments, as when the chorus, clad in black face stockings, tear into squirting tangerines, or turn into a pack of barking dogs. The sensual and the horrific – sex and death – rub shoulders in both script and movement. Panting from physical exertion turns into heavy-breathing desire; displays of glossy beauty acquire a frenetic, frightening charge.

Is it ok to review what’s not in a production? Geeking out with the script, the most obvious bits that Knight left out are erotic, and specific: “She preferred it when he stuck his tongue in her arse than when he stuck his finger up there”; “He wants to make love with his wife one time while her seventy-four-year-old Mother lies awake in the room next door”. I don’t think anyone said those things onstage. Yet interestingly, Knight held on to the more tender thoughts: “The particular and special feeling of your forearm on me as you held yourself above me”; “The sound of your breathing when you read to me”. There’s something quietly devastating in these close-up images of intimacy, but by keeping these and eschewing some of the more transactional offerings, Knight softens the play, making it more yearning than raw. It’s just one interpretation.

The movement and design aren’t just interpreting words though – they’re adding, creating new meaning of their own. Actually, the written ending of Nuclear War could be really fucking bleak: the woman knows when she presses the light switch, her lost loved one will finally be gone. But in Knight’s production, it is gorgeous: the four bodies, bathed in golden light, move around the woman as if flapping great beautiful angel wings – and not in a cheesy, off-he-pops-to-heaven way; in a powerful, animal, soaring way. It uplifts. There is, finally, a sense of exquisite release.

Nuclear War is at the Royal Court until 6th May 2017. 

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