Bread & Roses Theatre, London – until 20 March 2016
The heaps of white pillows that cover most of the stage make How To Survive a Swarm of Bees look like a slumber party or a kids’ fort, something with a lot of fun and giggles. But Anna Crace’s short play is far from the happy cuddliness implied by the set. With a Scandi aesthetic in both design and dialogue, this austere piece of new writing gives little away except for the looming apocalypse Of a massive storm and a swarm of bees that threatens the existence of two young couples barricaded into their homes. The minimalist text bears more than a passing resemblance to Beckett, but it’s so sparse that there isn’t much depth or substance despite the interesting premise.
The unnamed hetero couples in their early 20s live separately, but their lives and conflicts parallel each other in the moment. Rather than the somewhat disappointing story, the most interesting feature is the intertwining scenes where the characters occasionally swap partners (not that way, pervert) without acknowledging the change. The device is gently disorientating, aiding the distance from reality that creates a state of reflection in the audience. These four are Every Men in the face of a crisis, with fear, anxiety and need that manifest in four different ways. We can relate to them all, but know they are not of our world.
The lack of action and a threadbare story is frustrating, through. The only thing the four do is talk around the problem and argue, and shift pillows around in their confinement. What exactly is going on in the world? Disappearing news broadcasters and friends choosing to live underground are never fully explained. Why is the world reacting so strongly to a storm? Why are these couples fighting about staying in their homes with the buzzing growing ever louder? They allude to consequences of nature creeping into the house and “the nets” failing, but what are these consequences? It’s never revealed, but easily could be by lengthening this script by another twenty minutes or so.
There is some distinction between the different characters, but other than Laurie Ogden’s agoraphobic young woman, the rest are very similar. Should we stay or go? How long can we realistically eat the soup we’ve stockpiled? How will our relationship hold up with our choice? What do we do if one stays and the other leaves? These questions are debated, but never really answered. The end of the play is abrupt and feels like an interval; some audience hang around for a while and then, confused, head into the night.
The four performances are fine, but tend towards minimalist reflection as well. Though inherently theatrical in structure, elements of this script would be great for telly. The intimacy works well in small fringe theatres, but would most likely come across as flat anywhere larger.
Anna Crace is certainly onto some interesting ideas and design concepts in How To Survive a Swarm of Bees, but the need further development and clearer means of communication.
How To Survive a Swarm of Bees runs until 20th March.
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