My appreciation for the acting in The Bastard Queen was matched by my strong distaste for the actual play. As apocalypse dramas go, it’s pretty standard; the last few people on earth bicker over food, question morality following the annihilation of humanity, and revert to religious superstition and violence in the absence of order. The banal dialogue is interspersed with random acts of violence. The Bastard Queen is the squalling, bastard child of Lord of the Flies and Mercury Fur, inheriting the innovation of neither parent.
The problem with The Bastard Queen is its indeterminable tone.
It is a testament to the actors that this play is predominantly a watchable experience. Dialogue is delivered with a lightness comes close to dredging wit from the dull script and, crucially, you believe in the closeness and camaraderie of the group. The four survivors are effectively living a fantasy in order to manage the boredom and fear of their daily existence; the boys watch a cardboard box avidly, fighting over the ‘remote’ (a scuffed slipper). Tins of baked beans and dog food are transformed into slices of oozing pizza. The fantasy is acknowledged as such, but accepted as a necessary element of the routine. When a heavily pregnant girl stumbles into their camp, this predictable, if precarious order is shattered. One girl persuades the sceptical others that the child is key to the survival of the group, the heir to a new age. The superstition takes on a sinister edge when the newcomer loses her baby, her worth is questioned, and the others go to extreme measures to ensure their future survival.
The problem with The Bastard Queen is its indeterminable tone. The miscarriage of the baby is followed by a dance sequence, accompanied by jaunty music, in which the others put balloons under their shirts (where would they find balloons in an apocalyptic wasteland, anyway?) and pop them with needles. A scene in which a girl is held down by three people and raped is concluded with peals of laughter from all involved, included the assaulted victim. The intention of such sequences, I can only assume, is to show the nihilistic lawlessness of this new world – constricted by neither taboo nor morality.
Unfortunately, there is nothing behind this fashionable existential nothingness, the drama is based on a premise as unconvincing as the dodgy balloon baby belly. Sarah Kane is a playwright who can get away with such paradox and excess, as is Philip Ridley. The Bastard Queen, on the other hand, wears proudly on its sleeve the immature desire only to shock the audience. I wasn’t in the least shocked, only mildly nauseated.