FringeReview UK 2017
Simon Stephens’ Nuclear War directed by Imogen Knight is his most fluid, oblique statement yet. Chloe Lamford’s set scallops naturalistic edges of the stage like a sideboard with glasses, including bric-a-brac chairs for the audience in traverse. Later objects are turned into grave-goods and bricks are offered and discarded. Mostly though – to Elizabeth Bernholz’s punchy score and Lee Curran’s lighting – an ensemble swoops around central actor Maureen Beattie. Till May 6th.
Simon Stephens has been exploring music and now dance in this piece inspired by his collaboration with choreographer Hofesh Schechter. Directed by seasoned Court movement director Imogen Knight it’s his most fluid, oblique statement yet, and essentially physical theatre. Chloe Lamford’s set scallops naturalistic edges of the stage like a sideboard with glasses, including bric-a-brac chairs for the audience in traverse. Later objects are turned into grave-goods and bricks are offered and discarded. Elizabeth Bernholz’s punchy urban score with Peter Rice’s sound gloves the urban central section in particular. Lee Curran’s breathtaking lighting, sometimes greenish sometimes draining all the yellow off the stage, remains mesmerising. Mostly though four actors swoop about or stay menacingly still; us, perhaps.
Stephens turns this curiously-entitled Nuclear War into a 45-minute trauma-dance for a bereaved woman enacted by Maureen Beattie, whose day-long trudge through an oblivious city has more than oblivion factored. Stephens points – in a preface not very much shorter than the play – to Sarah Kane’s last works and a common exemplar, Martin Crimp on his Attempts On Her Life. Whilst these all snap off the obvious noun there’s a sometimes overwhelming force behind Kane’s pieces and coherence in Crimp’s that Stephens here mutes. When you get a stage-direction ‘All of these words may be spoke by the performers but none need to be’ you fear Stephens abdicates too much to his discovery.
The text can be selectively pounced on, redacted. Beattie’s voice is sometimes pre-recorded, sometimes spoken – the rational fact-spouting voice (italicised text) and experiential one judging by the two registers. Whist some of it’s really better unsaid, it’s only when you read it that more underlying obsessions surface. This shouldn’t happen.
What’s clear is Beattie’s detailed recall of her day beginning with a literal swallowing of a glass each of milk and water, a physicality that promises to anchor so much. She recalls her lover’s doing similar, different things. Curran’s atmospheric spotlighting on Beattie here heightens a feeling of greatness deferred. It seems we might receive incremental details. These anchoring rituals don’t last in the fluid city scenes, though, in Beattie’s encounters with young men who remind her of this seventh anniversary of a bereavement. Beattie’s unnamed character lost her lover in a hospital on this date, looks for him in others’ faces. Whilst this leads to embarrassment in a café where she’s nursing a waffle and hot chocolate, and looking at a man (Andrew Sheridan) sitting as her lover did, much else is anonymous people-watching.
We’re subjected to time moving forward, sex the italicised voice-over in its ‘moment of orgasm is often considered to be a moment of obliteration…. foreplay a process of abandonment. two people literally become one..’ Beattie’s lone woman yearns for human contact, indeed sex ‘just one more time’, to experience all this. Stephens’ explicit details are cut, but this theme’s tumescent, time’s arrow, orgasm the one way to stop it, which fails. Its here the quartet’s sympathetic sexual thrusting releases energies, part indifferent, part menacing, as they whisper to Beattie, sniff around her like a pack.
Beattie’s encounters move through gazing in horror at this quartet of the Eumenides with net stockings over their faces trying to cram tangerines in their mouths through the mesh. A clear enough indictor of conspicuous consumption and waste, it’s not located in anything more than Beattie’s register of loneliness. The quartet swoop and stoop, enact with Beattie one small bricking-up of grief and Beattie’s reaction.
Stephens is clearly inspired by balletic and dance tropes, hence we get ‘the balletic possibility of embarrassment/The spastic sadness of regret/The twist of an ankle in sunlight pointing towards a space/that no ankle has pointed to before.’ We get what this means, for Beattie’s character and the play only exist in dance, or in stance, even the grief’s a pas de-deux or duet for one. It’s the way emotions translate to physical awkwardness, how someone bereaved feels ugly in a sunlit leap of the young. ‘Spastic’ though is jaw-droppingly insensitive, and the trouble here is Stephens’ language. Happily, the offending lines are cut in performance. There are epiphanies, glints of superb writing, but as his Songs for Wende appended show, he’s a diffuse writer of lyrics, and lyricism is hard, precise, tight as drinking off a glass of milk with a water chaser.
There are silent moments of real poignancy. Late on, after dismissing bricks brought by Beatrice Scirrocchi she constructs a brickish circle with personal items, a kind of grave-goods ritual for seven years, too long a sacrifice making a stone, or brick of the heart.
Beattie’s character most of all is stupefied by the beautiful young: ‘They’ve come from all over the world and they’ve arrived. They were born for this place… and smell like fruit and danger.. their youth and their wealth and their hair’ and though she wants to ‘take a gun’ and ‘own their shops’ we’re ultimately beatified: ‘And they all smell so beautiful like they’re made of cut glass and fire.’ That moment as in writing a true poem, has been the work’s reward. Beattie’s character further concludes ‘They owned the place before they were born’ but it’s a fleeting shop door encounter with one beautiful person that provides an unexpected epiphany. Another occurs when the ensemble sing to Mickey Newbury’s ‘When the Baby in My Lady Gets the Blues’.
Beattie’s intensely committed performance is worth absorbing, and the ensemble of the expressive Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Gerrome Miller, Beatrice Scirrocchi (the brick-bringer) and Andrew Sheridan (as the semi-recumbent lookalike) make flesh as much of Stephens’ text as could be asked. If only they could speak. This physical theatre piece feels like a text that needs to risk pushing through more specificity without fear of losing its suggestiveness. It’s concrete that suggests, not the numinously vague. Quite often Stephens grasps this, beautifully – he’s a consummate dramatist. How can we tell the dancer from the dance? If we don’t want to, then memorable speech underpins it, made of cut glass and fire.