‘The crack in the tea-cup opens a lane to the land of the dead’: Nuclear War @ The Royal Court

Watching Nuclear War felt like being inside a poem rather than a story. The play attempts to capture one woman’s attempt to move on from the death of a loved one. It does this through an abstract fusion of theatre, dance and sound. It feels like an experiment which is fascinating but doesn’t always work.

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The audience is invited to sit on mismatched chairs all around the edges of the room. A low light glows from a lamp in the middle. With soft folk music playing and the actors humming along as they sit dotted about the carpeted floor nursing teacups, one feels rather like one is in a tent or sitting around a campfire, all cozy and warm. However, this is the last bit of real comfort and security the audience will get for the next 45 minutes.

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Though there is not really any a narrative to this play, it is ostensibly a woman’s journey through dealing with the death a loved one. This grieving character, played here by Scottish actress Maureen Beattie, is depressed and listless at home, then overwhelmed by stimuli and associated emotions and memories once she leaves the house. ‘One little second, two little seconds, three little seconds..’, she repeats several times. At the end, ‘four little seconds’ is added. Thus, she has moved on. At least, that’s what I think I understood. I don’t have a problem with not understanding things when I’m seeing a play, as long as the confusion can hold my attention. Too often during this piece, I found my mind wandering because I didn’t know what to think of what was going on in front of me.

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Simon Stephens wrote this play without assigning the text to any specific characters – the cast and director had to decide who would speak which lines. As one stage direction reads – ‘all of these words may be spoke by the performers but none need to be’.

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This show is all about versatility, about using things in many different ways. The black-clad ensemble (Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Gerrome Miller, Beatrice Scirocchi, Andrew Sheridan) are well-choreographed and can be very menacing. At times, they prowl like animals, and quite terrifyingly too, at others, they assume the roles of people on an Underground train. An amp, a few dressers and more become tables, platforms, shops, a cafe, a train..

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Elizabeth Bernholz’s soundscape is very powerful. At one point, the thumping pulse overwhelms you so much that it makes you feel like you’re inside someone’s beating heart. Words are amplified and thoughts run together as the music overpowers you and you are drawn deeper into the protagonist’s mind. The lighting too, designed by Lee Curran, is incredibly atmospheric.

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I cannot see any reason to name this play ‘Nuclear War’ other than to get people’s attention. As Simon Stephens is a pretty well-known playwright, this seems superfluous. Vague references to scientific phenomena like the laws of thermodynamics and and the nature of time are made in whispers, but the play isn’t in any way about the all too contemporary theme of nuclear warfare. Rather, it is about the fear of ageing, of not being able to stop the obliterating force of time. An interesting topic, but not explored in a coherent-enough way to create a truly meaningful evening.

Nuclear War is playing the Royal Court until 6 May 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

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