Royal Court Jerwood Theatre, Upstairs, London (****)
There’s something refreshingly anarchic about Simon Stephens. In his very long preface to the printed text of Nuclear War, Stephens talks at length about the process of writing this play and how the origination of it came from his interest in writing a piece of text for movement/dance after director Ramin Gray brought in choreographer Hofesh Schechter to work on his 2006 play, Motortown.
Stephens isn’t the first playwright to become fascinated in this way. Caryl Churchill followed a similar line of curiosity in 1986 with A Mouthful of Birds (with David Lan) and has subsequently gone on to write librettos for composer Orlando Gough.
Strikingly, though, Stephens refers to his text as a beginning, hoping directors and actors will bring all their imaginative powers to `kick the shit out of it’.
Stephens’s chosen director, Movement director, Imogen Knight, responds actually with a certain degree of moderation on a text which not only drips in grief and melancholy but also carries febrile desire. There is one passage in which Stephens describes making love and its relationship to merging with the other to evade the sense of Time in sexually graphic terms.
But Knight directs this as a whispered injunction by her small, attentive chorus so that its more lubricious aspects are almost quenched. What comes over instead in this short 45 minutes is instead a sweet evocation of moods, of light and shades of colour commenting on loss, Stephens’s perennial obsession with the city as a place of escape and potential excitement and finally a letting go and moving on.
I love the capacity of the Royal Court’s Upstairs Theatre to reinvent itself at every turn. Last time, for Debbie Tucker Green’s `…passionate devotion…’ we were seated pupil-like on stools in a classroom.
This time, we are summoned into a circle where Maureen Beattie sits in t-shirt and knickers whilst a plaintive, Tom Waits-like song of melancholy regret hangs in the air. (Stephens Nuclear War text is subtitled …& songs for Wende, relating to songs and lyrics he has written for Dutch singer Wende Snijder).
Explosion, annihilation and collapse run like a candy theme through Nuclear War. It may refer to the thermo-nuclear variety, or it may be as much to do with human reaction to a dear one’s death and the search for recovery.
Knight chooses a woman as her central character but I imagine it could as well be replaced by a gay male (or female) mourning the loss of his/her partner/husband.
Whatever the inference, Knight’s production sprinkles Stephens’s words with quietly sensual synchronised movement. The effect is at once touching, ghoulish and finally, infinitely sad.
Beattie is at all times engrossing and her chorus, especially Andrew Sheridan, silent, attentive and marvellously supportive.
Playing with form, Stephens and Knight strike if not fire at least make melodic, distinctive music together. A rare, beautiful entwining.
A new play by Simon Stephens
Director: Imogen Knight
Designer: Chloe Lamford
Lighting Designer: Lee Curran
Composer: Elizabeth Bernholz
Sound Designer: Peter Rice
Dramaturg: Lucy Morrison
Casting Director: Amy Ball
Assistant Director: Grace Gummer
Costume Supervisor: Holly White
Developed with Actors Touring Company.
World premiere of Nuclear War at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London, April 19, 2017. Runs to May 6, 2017.
This review first published on this site, April 25, 2017