Review of Nuclear War by Simon Stephens at the Royal Court Theatre
Simon Stephens is certainly one of Britain's most acclaimed and celebrated playwrights with hits such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time continuing to run around the UK and his recent Broadway hit Heisenberg waiting in the wings for a London transfer. This prestige allows a certain degree of experimentation and the Royal Court Upstairs provides an appropriate playground for this 45 minute visual collaboration with director Imogen Knight that's unsettling and momentarily profound but rarely feels more than investigative.
Whilst the title may feel on-the-money in the current world situation this isn't a play that explores North Korea, Trump or the imminent threat of nuclear manoeuvre, in fact it's somewhat apolitical and indescribable in both form and content. Best described as a set of scenes that explore a woman alone in the city, the voices scratched in her head come to life as she attempts ordinary tasks ultimately exploring a theme that's relevant to many Londoners – that of isolation in the urban jungle.
Having played with the free form in his earlier play Pornography which stripped the text of distinct characters and invited directorial freedom in terms of structure and audience, Nuclear War provides even less of a narrative journey. Blending contemporary dance the script is more a blueprint for a director's vision that at times absorbs any profound meaning and feels occasionally like a scene studies exercise. In exploring the links between text and meaning there are moments of sanity and cohesion, but in other sections this flounders and still feels like a developing work.
There are moments where Knight creates an arresting mix of visual metaphors and disturbing atmospheric pictures that shake your very core. The synthesis of sound design, lighting and choreography come together impressively but at times it feels like the boundaries are never clearly defined enough to feel suitably concrete. Some may be frustrated by this lack of cohesion but there's a anarchic intensity in Maureen Beattie's central experience that can feel relatable. She's interesting to watch but overshadowed by the figures around her as they eat oranges through a pair of tights to parading in gas masks and barking like dogs. Some of it lands but some feels trite, and as a full evening of theatre it will certainly leave you hungry.
The title may feel bathetic in the current context but Stephens has once again successfully experimented with form, and whilst it may not fully succeed as a whole it provides moments of creative bliss that are metaphorically sound and deserve attention.