Regents Park Open Air Theatre (on tour)
9th February 2016 (Curve, Leicester)
As a literature student, I hang my head in shame when I admit that my previous knowledge of Lord of the Flies was mainly informed by the excellent episode of The Simpsons, ‘Das Bus’. Having now seen Nigel Williams’ stage adaptation of William Golding’s seminal 1954 novel, I can attest that said spoof is remarkably faithful to its source (albeit featuring fewer deaths), or, at least, to this production.
Crash landed in paradise following evacuation from war-torn Britain, a disparate group of schoolboys fight, unite and generally run wild in an escalating series of conflicts in Timothy Sheader’s production which explores human nature, child psychology, morality and power struggles. Lead by the well-meaning but ineffective Ralph (Luke Ward-Wilkinson), the group attempt to instil rules and order - to the annoyance of school prefect, Jack Merridew (Freddie Watkins), who forms his own anarchic sub-group fuelled by an animalistic desire to hunt and kill.
Scenes of the boys battering and bloodying each other are captured in visceral slow motion (reminiscent of those nature documentaries detailing the precise moment of death as the predator pounces on its prey), accompanied by Nick Powell’s superb use of ethereal recordings of the Choir of Westminster Abbey. These searing moments of grace highlight the disparity between the mischievous yet innocent choristers that arrived on the island and the blood thirsty brutality they now embrace. Choir leader, Jack, in particular embodies this trope of ‘fallen angel’, evocative of Milton’s Paradise Lost. This also plays upon the religious allusions of the title, as the ‘Lord of the Flies’ – initially present in Simon’s (Keenan Munn-Francis) hallucinations of the fly-infested pig’s head – eventually becomes an allegory for the boys themselves, empowering the beast within.
While the implications of primal savagery and the concept of good vs. evil are contestable, especially in our modern age, Williams’ script and Sheader’s direction strike a balance in which our empathy and critical engagement are never totally isolated. The language perfectly echoes the tones of pre-pubescent mockery, where the worst conceivable insult is to be called ‘stupid’, and saying ‘shit’ is the height of maturity. On first arrival the boys gleefully scavenge the remnants of the cargo, playing dress-up in ladies bras and swimsuits, and – in a moment of clever modernity – group together for a ‘selfie’ which unfortunately can’t be shared because ‘there’s no 3G!’ on the island. These small touches reveal their innate naivety and ensure that we never lose sight of the characters’ youth – when everything is a game and the lines of reality are blurred in the eyes of children, how far can they be held reprehensible?
The end of the play deals a harsh reminder of this as the boys are diminished both physically and authoritatively by the deafening approach of the rescue helicopters, diverted from their course in the adult war raging on the periphery. While it’s difficult not to comdemn anyone who commits murder, the issues presented are complex and don’t provide any easy answers, but I suppose that’s why Golding’s book remains so pertinent and divisive.
One of the great achievements of this production is Jon Bausor’s astounding set. Baggage and all manner of personal items spill across the space, issuing from the bowels of the life-sized aeroplane carcass. The stunningly crafted tail end of the crashed plane fills much of the stage and transforms into hidey-holes and fire pits and acts as an all-purpose climbing frame upon which the actors leap and swing. Also commendable is the seamless choreography as the nimble footed actors weave in and out of each other, the separate camps occupying the same space while remaining distinctly separate both in place and mentality. Rounded off by some fine performances from a promising set of young actors, this production is a real triumph of literary dramatization.
There was a group of schoolboys in the audience (complete with public school uniforms incredibly reminiscent of those worn on stage!) and under the assured guidance of their teachers they were impeccably behaved (and it’s great to see kids encouraged to visit the theatre). But one has to wonder what happens without the ruling thumb of supervision… I can’t help but wonder what they made of the play and its depiction of the uncivilised (or should that be uninhibited) childhood nature.
Lord of the Flies tours until 19th March 2016.