this team knows how to elicit something from their audience, and the precision with which that is accomplished is worth a watch for admirers of the playwright
Maureen Beattie, whose character is identified only as ‘a woman,’ lives a monotonous, lonely life after the death of her lover. There is little speech, and most of it is prerecorded. Those recordings are mostly of Beattie relating a day in her struggle for connection, which provides the narrative skeleton of the piece, intercut with a series of intense whispered monologues, assumedly provided by the four other actors onstage, which explain entropy and sexuality. There is also recorded music and ambient noise, which accompanies the sections of the performance not driven by speech.
In the introduction to the play’s text, Stephens says he was inspired by the use of contemporary dance in the Royal Court’s production of his Motortown. However, the majority of the movement in Nuclear War is composed of simple movements: walking, turning, picking things up or putting them down. Despite that, the coordination between the five actors and a variety of set pieces allow them to represent a coffee shop, sex, a tube ride, and the emotional weight of memory. Elements more immediately recognizable as dance appear in the later part of the 45-minute show, as energy increases and movement intensifies.
Throughout, what the movement and dialogue mean take a backseat to how they feel. And in that, Stephens and Knight are successful. The chest-tightening induced by Nuclear War is the feeling of loneliness, and lovelessness. It’s not a pleasant sensation, but it is visceral.
But there is something lost in prioritizing movement and feeling over words and meaning. The recorded dialogue enables the production to put effects – skips, rewinds and layers – on the speech, giving it an eerie, out of body quality. But the acoustics were such that I sometimes lost the words to the noise, especially in the choral, whispered sections. In a production so short and precise, those losses are more pronounced.
On another level, recorded dialogue reduces the theatricality, the live-ness, of the piece. As a theatre fan, I couldn’t understand why you would give away the experience of live actors speaking to or at their audience.
To critique the movement, the most damning thing to note is that not all seats are created equal. One corner is used for significant portions of the play, which is difficult to see from almost half the seats, and the blocking definitely prefers certain angles. While looking at an actor’s back is a necessary feature of theatre in the round, that burden should be shared more fairly than it is here.
Nuclear War is best described as an experiment: it’s new, and intriguing. But with Stephens’ and Knight’s focus on the boundaries, they have lost some focus on the basics, and the piece may be best as a learning tool for its own creative team. Still, this team knows how to elicit something from their audience, and the precision with which that is accomplished is worth a watch for admirers of the playwright, the Royal Court, and theatre that prefers action to words.