Nuclear War (22nd April 2017, Royal Court Theatre)
Simon Stephens' newest work is his first experiment into contemporary dance - and I desperately wish it had gone further into this field. The script is a relatively formless narrative that the director/choreographer may (or may not) use as they wish. To read, it feels very influenced by Martin Crimp's work, although still distinctly laced with Stephens' voice. It is a "series of suggestions"1, which follows a recognizable story if you are familiar with Stephens' previous monologues - a grief-filled journey, a realization, culminating in the return home. Director Imogen Knight chose to stage the piece almost entirely like a monologue, using voice overs and a chorus of people dressed in black to decorate and flesh out the narrative. Although I appreciate we are witnessing one woman's journey, I felt the opportunity to create a groundbreaking piece of dance-theatre was missed. The contemporary dance influence could have been utilized a lot more to explore the ubiquitous feel of grief in our present age, as the text refers to.
It would be easy to see this piece of theatre as in introspective study of grief and moving on after a partner's death. However, the underlying threat of violence, and the title of 'Nuclear War' suggests it is far more. The woman's aggressive language when facing her alienation teeters in our awareness. With lines of "I feel like a hunter. I head out into the city and I feel alert"2, an audience cannot help but feel the associations to atrocities we have seen committed by a single person. However, this is then immediately juxtaposed by the threat the city holds over the woman, as her surroundings feel hazardous and overwhelming. She describes "And everything I see seems yellow all of a sudden.... I see the yellow in the eyes of the ambulance driver"3. Yellow is often a sign of warning, and there is a repeated feeling that the city creates a vulnerability that she wishes to control - the unused hazmat suit hanging by the entrance to the room does not go unnoticed, as if at any point something might go horribly wrong. This feeling permeates through much of Stephens' recent work, as his use of grief "convey(s) the feeling of exposure and vulnerability against a world in an unprecedented state of uncertainty where random acts delivering irretrievable blows to everyday life have become commonplace"4. Her grief, although explained by what we perceive as the death of her partner seven years ago, feels inherently tied to the city. Her inability to move on from his death at times feels at fault of the city itself, as a panic attack inducing state is created as she obsessively lists the amenities. This ends with "I want to take a gun. I want to own their shops"5. Her capitalistic attempts at curing her unhappiness through materialistic possession becomes aggressive and violent. She feels a victim of the overwhelming city, unable to communicate, but in reality rather than retaliate violently she seeks a sexual, loving connection. Her crave to find a connection which will allow her to move on has become a weight she cannot bear.
The weight of grief becomes a visual and shared possession in the use of bricks. Bricks litter the edges of the audience, and are later stacked up and slowly piled into the arms of a member of the cast as he recites a memory of the deceased lover. On a side note, this rare moment where another cast member took on the role of the woman was excellent, using identity as a tool in which to make her grief feel universal. The bricks are later thrown onto the ground in anger, and used to build a shrine - the grief is shared between the cast, malleable and transforming. The plants also become a metaphor for her grief, as she builds a shrine of her dead lover's clothes, and then smothers them in a depotted plant. She is half dirtying them to remove the hold his death has over her life (she is entirely dressed in his clothes for the duration, in an attempt to keep his smell close to her it seems), and half despairingly planting them as roots from which she wants new life to grow - his life returned, or the hope of new love. The opposing vunerabilities of violence and love are combined, her grief flitting manically between them.
In conclusion, although I loved the concept and the production had many fantastic qualities, it was not as experimental in performance as you would hope, despite having all the building bricks required to challenge their audience. It felt like an abstract look at moving on after a lover's death, without fully exploring all the deeper tensions that bubble underneath the surface. The boundaries of violence and love could have been pushed further - many of the most challenging overtly sexual lines were left out of this production - as the woman is not created to fully embrace her role as a sexual predator, only a wistful victim with a fleeting anger. I admire Stephen's faith in his directors to create a production that uses his writing as a springboard, however I am not convinced the whole essence of this text was captured in performance.
1 & 6. 'Nuclear War & The Songs for Wende', Simon Stephens (2017) p. 12.
2 & 3. Stephens, p.14.
4. 'Social and Political Theatre in the 21st Century: Staging Crisis', Vicky Angelaki (2017), p. 169.
5. Stephens, p. 22.
1 &2. . https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2017/nuclear-war-review-at-the-royal-court-london/