Royal Court Jerwood Upstairs
24 April 2017
Simon Stephens presents just 12 pages of text for his latest work, Nuclear War, describing it as “a series of suggestions for a piece of theatre”, leaving it up to collaborators such as the director to make decisions on staging. “All of these words may be spoken by the performers but none of them need be,” he adds. In collaboration with director Imogen Knight and dramaturg Lucy Morrison, the result is a boldly experimental piece that is mesmerising, unsettling and at times bewildering.
It touches on themes of loss and alienation found in some of Stephens’ previous plays such as Harper Regan and Port. It takes us into the world of an unnamed woman who is suffering from overwhelming loss seven years after the death of a loved one, presumably her partner. With Maureen Beattie taking centre stage, we hear her anguished thoughts, spoken both live and as a recorded voiceover, supported by four other actors who move around her almost voicelessly. As she travels around London on the Underground and along the busy streets and sits in a coffee shop, we experience it all from her fractured perspective, with terrifying visions and an assault of sound. The pain of her loss is matched by her desperate desire for human contact, including sex “one more time”. The language is poetic and often abstract, switching from the everyday to “the thoughts scratched onto the inside of my head”.
Inevitably, the experience is bleak and disturbing but it has moments of lightness such as her unconventional attempt to talk to a young stranger on the Tube. We also get a glimpse of the joy she remembers from her time with her loved one as the supporting cast sing and dance badly along to country singer Mickey Newbury’s When the Baby in My Lady Gets the Blues.
The audience sit on mismatched dining chairs around a bare space broken up by Chloe Lamford’s set of messed-up domestic objects. Constantly changing and fluid, this is complemented by lighting designed by Lee Curran and sound by Peter Rice. Beattie’s assured central performance is well supported by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Gerrome Miller, Beatrice Scirocchi and Andrew Sheridan whose choreographed movements make it partly a dance piece. While the show is at times confusing and disorienting, it is riveting throughout its 45 minutes, leaving you with words, sounds and sights that will continue to haunt.
Running to May 6, 2017
Photos: Chloe Lamford