james debate
james debate

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Written by Alistair McDowall
Starring Jessica Raine, James Harkness, Ria Zmitrowicz, Darrell D'Silva, Rudi Dharmalingam
Theatre Royal Court

x royal court theatre alistair mcdowall

One of the big revelations when you read enough reviews of theatre is that most reviewers are really just making it up as they go along. I am constantly amazed to read professional reviews, including some of the major publications, where the author has clearly missed entire plot points, or drawn a ludicrous conclusion based on some obvious agenda. One of the great things about theatre is, of course, how open it is to interpretation, but it's hard to escape the whiff of sycophancy; journalists attempting to sound like they understood the play by parroting whatever the groupthink of the theatre-going class happened to be.

X, the new play from the Royal Court Theatre, has presented a particularly pronounced example of this phenomenon. Every single review has a completely different interpretation of what the play is about, so much so that people can't even seem to agree on basic story points such as setting, characters or even on what planet the story is set. Part of this is legitimate interpretation of the production, but a great deal is because these people write with such intentional vagueness that for all we know they might not even have seen the play. This form of arch hackery is altogether strangely in keeping with the style of X itself.

Let's start from the beginning. X is the newest play from 28 year old wunderkind Alistair McDowall, often described as the great white hope of British theatre scribes, and a writer with a reputation for ambitious, abstract storytelling.

X ostensibly tells the story of a group of people stranded in a research base on Pluto. Contact has been lost with Earth and things are starting to get nervy. Time is being distorted as the inhabitants begin to lose context with reality, and there's a hint of some ghostly goings on. By intermission you'll be under the impression that you're watching a fairly unremarkable, but perfectly enjoyable horror story. But McDowall is not the type to give you something so simple.

Then the second act goes completely off the deep end as characters, relationships and the passage of time shift and interchange freely with seemingly no consistency or significance. All narrative flow is abandoned. One scene even goes so far as to be 10 minutes of two characters shouting the letter "x" at each other back and forth non stop. One might make the case that this hearkens back to a key scene in the first act where one character uses bird calls as an allusion to associative memory; the fundamental maintenance of an emotional connection to particular memories in order to retain the significance and relationship between them. As the story continues, the exact opposite happens, memories fade, significance of people and events vanishes.

One might add to this the context that is heavily implied during the production, that life on Earth has seemingly come to an end. Essentially we are watching the last memories of human existence fade away in this claustrophobic box. It is surely no coincidence then that Pluto is chosen as the setting, given its connections in mythology to the underworld, the "tomb" of mankind in this case.

The problem is, I've spent four paragraphs talking about the meaning behind X, almost none of which is more than hinted at on-stage. There's nothing wrong with subtext and metaphor, but in this case the audience is going well above and beyond the call of duty in order to divine some hidden significance from the script.

In a well written play, the plot and themes should complement one another. Plot with no underlying themes is superficial, themes with no plot to hold it all together is pretentious. This is the latter. The plot here is razor thin. The characterisation is so poor, with so little depth, and such messy story telling, that it's impossible for the audience to ever develop a connection with the characters and therefore engage with the plot in the way that is an absolute requirement for a play that necessitates such hard work from the audience.

The story simply is not at all compelling, the themes not especially novel or fleshed out, and never comes together in any kind of satisfying way. You sit there waiting for something to happen, for some thematic conclusion that will bring the deeper significance of the author's intent together with what you're actually watching unfold, but this never comes. X very much has the feeling of the author having a half-baked shower-thought, and quickly cobbling together some semblance of a story to serve as a vehicle to express that thought.

It's not all negative. The set design is excellent, featuring prominently a single huge black window that dominates the set, feeling oppressive and deeply unsettling. The stage itself is tilted askew, having the combined effect of creating a discombobulated, unsettled world, and of creating a black border in the corners around the set, further adding to the sense of isolation and being trapped.

In addition the first act is entirely enjoyable, a creepy throw-back to the era of classy sci-fi circa 1970. The problem is entirely with the second act; at a time when the script should be tying the themes and plot together into a satisfying and illuminating denouement, it simply doesn't bother, and leaves you to pick up the pieces.

There's a scene in the first act where two characters discuss listening to white noise in order to find some meaning amidst the chaos. This seems to be the approach of the second act: to completely disintegrate the story and characters into abstraction, with the view that the audience will form some significance or justification that the author himself hasn't. It's the sort of pretentious contrivance that might sound compelling when described to an artistic director over a boozy lunch at the Botanist, but frankly it's cliché. The absence of meaning doesn't itself bear some inherent meaning, and if that's what passes for thought provoking at the Royal Court, one hopes they'll try a bit harder next time.

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