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The Theatreguide.London Review

Nuclear War
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs  Spring 2017

Simon Stephens explains in the introduction to the published text of Nuclear War that it is deliberately not a conventional play, but more a prose poem that he relies on a director and actors to select from, organise and divide among themselves to give it theatrical shape. 

His only expectation is that the end product should involve choreography or expressive movement of some sort, the words serving partially as the musical score for the visuals the others create. 

So what director Imogen Knight and a cast of five present here may be entirely different from any future productions. 

A woman awakes and starts her day while a recorded voice describes her actions. The voice and other voices will follow her through the day, sometimes describing, sometimes voicing her thoughts, while four other actors play Everyone Else and Everything Else she encounters. 

A story of sorts gradually emerges, of loneliness in a crowd, of mourning for someone gone, and of yearning for some intense emotion to break through the greyness, leading at nightfall to some resolution and peace, perhaps merely through exhaustion. 

There isn't very much actual dance in Imogen Knight's staging, the evocative movement largely a matter of the woman's compulsive racing through her day and the others' sinuous getting into and out of her way. 

An alternately dreamlike and nightmarish tone is established, but I suspect that many in the audience will be too distracted by footnoting Stephens' and Knight's debts to previous works.

In that same published Introduction Stephens acknowledges the influence of Martin Crimp's Attempts On Her Life on his undifferentiated do-it-yourself text. Meanwhile the sight of a mainly silent woman responding to a recorded voice reminds us of Beckett's Rockaby and Footfalls, and the symbolic day ending in peace evokes James Joyce. 

Providing both the person and the disembodied voice of the central figure, Maureen Beattie captures the sequence of intense emotions she goes through although, even at a mere 45 minutes running time, it takes the text too long to help her tie the bits together into a coherent character. 

The deliberately anonymous other actors – they're masked part of the time – serve the play generously. 

You may come away from Nuclear War (the relevance of the title is not clear) moved by the occasional image or turn of phrase by the writer or impressed by some things the director did with the raw material. 

But Nuclear War is likely to be one of those theatrical experiments more fascinating and valuable to the participants than satisfying to the observer.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Nuclear War - Royal Court Theatre 2017