X (Royal Court Theatre, 6th April 2016)
X originally appealed to me as an avid fan of dystopian sci-fi, although I was also drawn by the excellent reviews for McDowell's Pomona. The play has all the elements of a good sci-fi thriller, with burning tension and characters for whom you empathise, and just a touch of inexplainable creepiness. Abandoned on Pluto having lost contact with an Earth that has depleted all its sources, a small crew of scientists and astronauts wait for their rescue. Time begins to collapse, whether that is literal due to the cessation of earth's technical systems or due to their isolation is uncertain, and sanity begins to slip as desperation sets in. It seemed to me the grand scale of Pomona's world was condensed and squeezed into the minds of the astronauts, as interestingly McDowall's Pomona was suggested by the Guardian to be predicting a future where "our solitary lives continue in a meaningless loop founded in pain and suffering"1, which was clearly a theme continued with X. The feeling of time collapsing also resonated through the use of darkness. The audience are frequently plunged into the pitch black for longer than required for a 'fade to black'. It was interesting to research, after seeing the play, that long periods of darkness have an extreme effect on our ability to tell time, for example in an experiment, a man who was underground in darkness for two months took five minutes to count 120 seconds 2. Although I realise this is an extreme case, the theatrical darkness exasperated the idea of endless waiting.
Emphasis on the endless waiting creates an anxiety that permeates beyond the characterisation, and as McDowell suggests, X is “about ‘Who am I?’, as the abandoned crew begin to shut down in numerous ways. They collapse into themselves and into others, as their hallucinations become all-consuming, and their memories are lost and absorbed by others to create identities. They lose trust, language, and this eventually resides in physical illness, self harm, suicide, until all but one are left.
I found the most heart wrenching scenes were not the violence, nor the painful deaths, but in fact, the loneliness as only one is left. Curled up on the floor, screaming into the floor whilst surrounded by delusions of leaves. Trees have long been extinct, and it seems she is perceived as this too - an extinct, dead leaf, cast out far from the last 'tree' of mankind over on Mars.
She eventually succumbs to what I interpreted to be dementia, although it could be a multitude of mental or physical illnesses. Her earlier mentions of a mother who passed away after 'things in her head became jumbled', become herself, as her visions of 'her daughter' whom is seen as her younger self combine and confuse. We are left with the haunting vision of her abandoned, with her imaginary self and children, sleeping by the empty window, where an expanse of nothingness stretches out, the silence and sleep welcomed. Despite the peace in this image, we are not spared a painful ending, as herself/daughter is left awake. This is certainly not a relationship drama - it is a drama on the lack thereof. It seems the most painful suffering is isolation and the forms this can come in.
2. Also interesting to note, In experiments on isolation, within 48 hours, subjects suffered severe hallucinations and mental health difficulties. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140514-how-extreme-isolation-warps-minds
Image - http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/apr/06/x-review-royal-court-london-alistair-mcdowall