Nuclear War, Royal Court Theatre – Review

Maureen Beattie

A collaborative venture between Simon Stephens and Imogen Knight, Nuclear War is an artistic meditation on loneliness and loss. Similar to Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, whose original text is bereft of intentions or onstage directions by the author, Knight has had to build the choreography Nuclear War from the ground up. It’s fair to say that the finished performance isn’t so much an adaptation of Stephens’ vision as the fleshing out and completion of a song – with Knight providing the melody to Stephens’ ‘lyrics’.

Elements of Nuclear War can be found in some of Stephens’ earlier plays such as Three Kingdoms, plus David Harrower’s version of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck and Frantic Assembly’s Peepshow. However, Nuclear War is very much its own thing.

Nuclear War opens with Maureen Beattie sitting still in the dimly-lit space, surrounded by Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Gerrome Miller, Beatrice Scirocchi and Andrew Sheridan in close proximity. Beattie gets up and goes through her routine – what she has done every day for the past seven years ago since the sky erupted with light and everywhere is bathed in an intense yellow light…

Lyrically, Stephens evokes H.G. Wells’ unnamed Narrator in War of the Worlds, as well as the science’s ‘cool’ abstract view of the Three Law of Themodynamics. Similarly, the analysis of human sexuality in Freudian terminology is told in a detached, measured fashion – until Beattie opens up about the need for human contact, whereupon the real marrow of the play comes to the fore.

dsc5342-1024x819.jpgAs Beatie’s Narrator makes her journey across town, she’s contfronted by figures that may or may not be projections of her own sub-conscious. Constatntly moving in relation to her, they mirror her anxieties. Sometimes benign, sometimes predatory, the shadowy figures in black provide the visual vocabulary of the play. In conjunction with Lee Curran’s mood-driven lighting and the earthy electronica of Elizabeth Bernholz, Nuclear War has ambience to the hilt.

At the beginning of the play, when I was waiting for it to start, I was already thinking if how I was going to write it up. In the dimly-lit performance space, I immediately thought of using the famous Dylan Thomas poem Do Not Go Gentle In That Good Night… However it became obvious very quickly that with the play’s themes of loneliness and longing that the lyrics from Gladys Knight’s Help Me Make It Through The Night were more appropriate:

Yesterday is dead and gone
And tomorrow’s out of sight.
Lord, it’s bad to be alone.
Help me make it through the night.

While the play can be analysed, critiqued and deconstructed, Nuclear War is first and foremost a piece that one experiences, allowing the words, choreography and ambience to ‘waft over’ and make one feel. It’s guaranteed to resonate with you long after the performance.

© Michael Davis 2017


Nuclear War runs at the Royal Court Theatre until 6th May 2017.

nuclear war

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