Royal Court Theatre – until 16 July 2022
[This review consists almost entirely of spoilers]
The nudge-nudge cover story for this play – that it’s the debut by someone who has worked in ‘the security industry’ for 38 years – is fairly transparent, and suspicions are confirmed when the Royal Court’s shop won’t sell you the text before the show starts.
Immediately, surtitles confirm this is a ruse, and that the play being performed is actually Lucy Kirkwood’s new piece Rapture. However, the misdirection doesn’t stop here. The surtitles claim that an injunction prevents the play from being openly performed because it concerns a real couple and contested events. This too is fictional, but Kirkwood and the Royal Court have gone to great lengths to build mystery around this show because it is concerned with the fate of a couple, Noah and Celeste, whose vague tendency towards conspiracy theories leads them down an increasingly dark path.
Rapture, or whatever the play is really called, has interesting overall intent, but doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. The central couple, with Sienna Kelly as Celeste and Jake Davies as Noah hit it off on a Guardian-style date, at which references to conspiracies such as chemtrails seem just asides. They move in together and have a baby but Noah, without a job, switches to earning a living from running a paranoid Youtube channel. Celeste, a nurse, is drawn in and soon they are refusing the Covid vaccine, becoming recluses and heading into a dead end. The two performers build a convincing sense of mounting disorientation, and the play works hard to undermine a single narrative.
The third cast member, Priyanga Burford, plays Lucy Kirkwood, who frames the narrative, lurking on stage to provide explanatory context. (There is a surprise fourth cast member who appears at the very end, but revealing her identity is perhaps a spoiler too far, even for this play.) From Burford, we discover the couple were under surveillance for reasons that are unclear, and that the state may have played a role in their fate – a conspiracy that would justify their paranoia if it could ever be proved which, by definition, it cannot. Naomi Dawson’s set is rotated by stage hands, revealing the mechanisms behind society’s façade in a way reminiscent of the National Theatre’s 1990s production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls.
Kirkwood’s ambition is admirable and the evening is absorbing in parts but frustrating in others. The fake author and title seems a step too far, more of an in-joke than a contribution to a play that aspires to investigate a modern condition. Similarly, the bugging of the couple which Burford as Kirkwood cannot entirely explain, also plays like a slightly flippant explanation of the playwright’s omnipotent knowledge. Similarly, having Burford on stage as the writer is amusing, but undermines the impacts of the story she tells. These meta-narrative, pseudo-documentary elements deflect from a tragic story, on the whole believable, of ordinary people who look for explanations of what is wrong with the world, and are destroyed by their search – a narrative for our times.