Royal Court, London – until 6 May 2017
In his playtext introduction, Nuclear War writer Simon Stephens talks about the tyranny of authorial intent, sharing the responsibility of interpreting the text amongst the cast, and “kicking the shit out” of what’s been written to produce something like a true artistic collaboration; a licence to free associate on paper and on stage. This long Pseuds’ Corner entry, roughed up with a little swearing to vouchsafe the author’s edgy credentials, transfers to the performance, talk of entropy and existential angst peppered with asides on fucking, the playwright’s word. Orgasm negates death, we learn. But what’s really been negated here is intellectual coherence.
At the end of Nuclear War we’re left with a circle of bricks, some tea cups, a plant, the last of someone’s digestive biscuits, and a lot of questions. Bewildered faces, bored faces, solemn faces; that’s the audience’s contribution to this collaborative interpretation. What was this fifty-minute trawl through one sombre woman’s id (Maureen Beattie) actually about? Is the titular war just a metaphor for anomie, dislocation, the fag-end of mortality and psychological desolation? Or might the landscape of her troubled mind be a reaction to a literally devastated environment – one in which the species is indeed under threat, hence the need for all that fucking? Where a taunting chorus dress in black, as though burned, and the artefacts of a broken civilisation litter the scene – bricks, the last of the food, overturned furniture, old china.
We don’t know and can’t know. Instead, Imogen Knight’s production invites us to sample the mood, imbibe the nightmarish atmospherics, reel from the hallucinogenic sound and lighting, and submit to the performance’s appropriation (play seems a strong word) of troubled cognition – a world of ideas and ponderables, rather than anything passé like thematic coherence and characterisation.
Nuclear War’s a spectacle; a study in anxiety that produces some vivid tableaus. But this is the kind of show that’s done to you, rather for than for you. The staging means blindspots for choosing a seat in the wrong part of the studio, but it hardly matters. You’re either going to get off on lines like, “the balletic possibility of embarrassment” and other cliché overkill like “kiss my eyelids”, or you’ll be decidedly unmoved.
Stephens might have added something like a narrative to anchor all this philosophic reflection and voiding of emotions, but one suspects that would have narrowed interpretation, liberating critical reaction. “I don’t want to talk about themes and content” he writes in the aforementioned introduction. One can see why.