Review: 'Nuclear War' at The Royal Court

Nuclear War is my first Simon Stephens play. In the flesh, that is. I’ve read and re-read a good portion of his work on the page, but that’s not really the point, is it? Theatre is meant to be watched, and communally at that, not read alone in bedrooms or on the way to work. It’s a stroke of luck then that I chose to break the habit and experience Nuclear War at the Jerwood Upstairs Theatre at The Royal Court rather than on my commute, since on the page there’s not a lot to go on. At 10 pages long, with each line hanging unattributed to any single character, and no stage directions other than an initial suggestion that none of the words even need to be spoken, Stephens has relinquished much of his creative power. He bestows it instead upon director and choreographer Imogen Knight and the actors.

That’s not to say the play wouldn’t have held certain significance had I read it on my commute, hemmed in by strangers intent on avoiding one another’s gaze. The piece follows a woman still cocooned by grief seven years after a death who decides, on this day, to wriggle out of her loneliness and connect. She travels across London trying to find someone to hold her, reaching out on the tube, in the streets, in a café. An internal monologue ruminates on the second law of thermodynamics; the unavoidable truth that everything decays. Nothing escapes the rapacious quickening of time. The protagonist tries to fend it off by searching for a human touch that will render her utterly ‘in the moment’. Time will stop, and perhaps the pain will be anaesthetised. Those few seconds will be sweet relief.

And that’s pretty much all I got. The way in which the narrative unfolds is abstract to say the least, but nonetheless absorbing for it. Maureen Beattie’s protagonist is followed by a four-person chorus who represent, well, lots of things. They’re benevolent spectres of the past, holding out a steadying hand to help the grieving woman dress in the morning. Then they’re savage beasts in pursuit of prey. Perhaps most unsettling of all, they’re detached strangers wearing gasmasks on public transport, so deep is the association of contact with contamination. When the members of the chorus sheath their heads in black stockings and try to eat tangerines through them, the effect is both beautiful – the juice of the fruit exploding in the light – and disturbing. If the fruit represents connection, they try and try and still can’t get to it. During an internal monologue on sex as the ultimate in human contact they begin thrusting on the ground, then their movements become reptilian, as if emerging from a primordial ooze. If this is Darwinian evolution, how far have we really come? By turns the chorus represents humans as automatons and apes, so it’s never really clear.

That the movement and symbolism of the play does not always hold easily identifiable meaning in no way marred my enjoyment of Nuclear War. It seemed to me that what Stephens, Knight, and each of the five actors are trying to evoke is a feeling. The grey solitude of grief, terror at the merciless ageing process, the loneliness of a crowd. I left the theatre unsure of what I’d just seen, but nonetheless buzzed from an emotional hit – a buzz which has stayed with me like the play's shadowy chorus ever since.

The production continues until 6th May 2017
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Image copyright the artist: Chloe Lamford