Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Dance review: Nuclear War

Unusually for a British playwright, Simon Stephens is a vocal fan of European directors' theatre, where the text is a starting point to be treated as faithfully or otherwise as the director decides. So it's not too big a stretch that he's also interested in his work being interpreted through the gift of dance, and the premiere production of Nuclear War is directed by Imogen Knight, who usually works as a movement director, with the instruction that she could use as little or as much of the scripted speech as she wants. In the event, though some of it is spoken by the actors on stage, much is pre-recorded as voiceover by Maureen Beattie, who plays a woman still in mourning for someone she lost seven years ago, but has finally decided to go out into the city again in search of someone - as the short piece goes on it seems increasingly that she's looking for a new man, maybe just to have sex with.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Gerrome Miller, Beatrice Scirocchi and Andrew Sheridan are mostly wordless as everyone else she encounters, an often threatening presence who sometimes even hide their faces under masks and stockings.


This being Simon Stephens, who wrote a play about the 7/7 bombings called Pornography, a play about a school shooting called Punk Rock, and a play about fuck knows what called Wastwater*, one thing Nuclear War definitely doesn't seem to be about is nuclear war. Being largely told through abstract movement it's obviously open to interpretation, but although the text obviously takes grief as a general starting point, I saw it largely as Knight showing the woman's internal anxieties taking physical form, her fear of how to go back out into the world made flesh by the other four actors' aggressive body language towards her.


Chloe Lamford's set is a plain white box with a few unrelated objects - bits of furniture, bricks, teacups, a heater, a speaker - being moved around by the cast to create various locations, and the plain design allows Lee Curran's lighting to reflect the focus on specific colours that are mentioned in the script. It's not always successful at holding the attention - I did get distracted at one point thinking how inevitable it was that Stephens would end up working with Robert Holman's muse Andrew Sheridan, and a moment where the cast tried to eat tangerines through tights gave me unfortunate flashbacks to a fruit-fixated Oresteia - but at 45 minutes it doesn't try the patience but provides enough to get the brain whirring around its possible meanings.

Nuclear War by Simon Stephens and Imogen Knight is booking until the 6th of May at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 45 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Chloe Lamford.

*he did also write a play called The Trial of Ubu that was about the trial of Ubu, but then he got Katie Mitchell to direct it so that it wasn't about that any more.

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