X

If someone was to lose their grip on the concept of time as being linear, then the accepted psychological structure of how things happen, when, where and with whom, may break down into all manner of fantastical or surreal snapshots – pieces of a puzzle that should fit but can't quite match. Such an idea lends itself to endless creative opportunities as we are used to subconsciously running our lives through habits based on time – so if you break that habit, then the world becomes unrecognisable. And as many a Doctor Who fan will attest, that means that there is no such thing as sense or nonsense; without time you have a void to fill and here, that void is defined as just an 'X' in Alistair McDowall's new, possibly quickly labeled 'science fiction horror' play at the Royal Court.

If you enjoy theatre where the conversations on exiting are, at best, debating what happened on stage and, at worst, dismissing the previous two-and-a-half hours with a "not a f-in clue", then you may enjoy this.

But don't let that moniker sway your judgment. Ostensibly we are in space – on a research base on Pluto where the five misfit crew have lost contact with Earth and are claustrophobically living and breathing each others' lives in order to maintain some semblance of sanity in the silence of their own fears and irrationality. The Earth they have left has all but died – no trees, no birds, no real animals left to eat (apart from worms it seems, though that may be a script oversight missed in the development of this complex idea) – and so the bubbling undercurrent is that humanity is now over too. Their fear of loneliness, their awareness that the digital clock is reversing all concept of time, their mixed memories of who they really are, their lack of a grip on language – all these unfold but with no clear idea of what was the precursor to the horrors, visions and deaths that may lead them to a kind of madness. Indeed, perhaps it was the madness that was the origination of all the other events – who knows? We certainly aren't being given any clues here.

However much you read about X, it is unlikely that you will get a true idea of what the play is actually about – not because the critics are taking a vow of secrecy so as not to give anything away, but because McDowall wants to be cleverer than us and won't make anything clear. If you enjoy theatre where the conversations on exiting are, at best, debating what happened on stage and, at worst, dismissing the previous two-and-a-half hours with a "not a f-in clue", then you may enjoy this. But there is an intellectual snobbery that if you 'don't get it' or just don't enjoy it, then it's your fault rather than the play's. Personally I don't want to be made to feel inferior just because I got bored.

There seems to be a checklist to making "new, clever writing" on show at the moment, especially when the subject matter is around (damaged) psychology, as it ultimately is here. As seen in The Father (dementia), People, Places & Things (addiction) and even Yen (familial decay), these tend to include the following: over repetition of scenes and language; lighting that both strobes and completely black-outs to allude to mental anguish; characters swapping ownership of stories; and dialogue that overlaps, remains unanswered and moves away from real English. X uses all of these in abundance – particularly in the second act where the actual existence of characters is unclear and scenes break down into little more than half-lines and, ultimately, long conversations that make no sense other than sound (including the overlong scene containing just the word 'X' over and over again).

What is lacking here that the other pieces never lost sight of, is any depth to the characters or any believability (whether or not they are actually real, it is tough to care about anyone when there seems so few dimensions to them). It also lacks pace. The first act (which sets up the second... or maybe that's the other way around) drags on through a series of mainly two-handed scenes that, with unrealistic and unempathetic characters, makes it difficult to maintain interest or enthusiasm. Even when the second act includes a series of short, sharp, surreal images as scenes, they are too rhythmic to shock.

Perhaps the weakness of the characters is due to the confusion being purposefully played out. All the cast do passable jobs but with material that really needs little more than reading (albeit with some sobbing and lots of shouting, hardly the ingredients of star-turns), none of them stand out as either great or awful. They are really just there as the conduits to letting the conceit of the idea play out – there's no character-driven narrative here. Though arguably, there's no narrative here at all.

It's all very interesting and will divide opinion in the same way that Escaped Alone did recently – as that was 'interesting' too. But 'interesting' seems akin to 'nice' – a slightly empty adjective that will suffice when you have no strong opinion either way and maybe don't want to voice your boredom through being confused. Challenge an audience and make us question what we think we know but, as I have said before, avoid trying to be so clever that half the audience just won't get it. For what is the point of theatre if it doesn't try to be inclusive.

With the first two plays at the Royal Court this year so far swaying towards intellectual exclusivity, I hope we can soon see exciting new styles of writing that strive to be accessible too. It would be much more interesting if the debates afterwards were based around something other than the understanding of the writing – if it continues in this vein, then we risk just making theatre for those already at the party. And that's a dangerously 'invitation only' place from which to argue the point of theatre's value to all.

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

National Theatre

The Normal Heart

★★★
Arts Theatre

Oleanna

★★
Olivier Theatre

Under Milk Wood

★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

The Seven Streams of the River Ota

★★★★★
National Theatre Olivier

The Visit

★★★
National Theatre - Olivier

My Brilliant Friend

★★

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

“It’s a tax write-off. This is where they send the new, the underqualified, the old. And most of all the British. Mars is full of blonde Americans. It’s like they’re building the master race out there.”

Billions of miles from home, the lone research base on Pluto has lost contact with Earth. Unable to leave or send for help, the skeleton crew sit waiting.

Waiting.

Waiting long enough for time to start eating away at them.

To lose all sense of it.

To start seeing things in the dark outside.

“Can you help me?

I really feel like I’m…

I’m hanging on by my nails here…”

Alistair McDowall’s new play is directed by Royal Court Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone.

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