The War of the Worlds - Rhum and Clay
New Diorama, London. 08.01.2019 - 09.01.2019
Well, this was a fantastic start to the theatrical year.
HG Wells' The War of the Worlds, written in 1898 and imagining the Martian invasion of Earth, is a humdinger of a story. It was subsequently adapted (and propelled into cultural legend) as a 1938 radio play by Orson Welles, which was structured as a number of news bulletins and "live" reports from the scene of the alien landing. Here's the kicker: because the story was dressed up as factual reportage, the American public, being so used to wholesome and trustworthy radio content, apparently took Welles at his word - so when they heard what sounded like news of an alien attack, they ran for the hills.
Rhum and Clay's The War of the Worlds takes all of this - the Wells story, the Welles broadcast, and the subsequent brouhaha it allegedly created, as artistic starting points for a genuinely excellent play which brilliantly mucks about with objectivity, meaning and media.
The play begins by transporting us to a bygone era: mid-twentieth century America, where at the centre of every home stood a radio, which could bring Roosevelt into your armchair, Chamberlain into your kitchen - or aliens onto your doorstep. With funky theatricality, the cast recreates the original Welles broadcast on stage, breathing theatrical life into the radio drama's narrative and morphing fluidly between the roving reporters, quizzical professors, confused citizens and terrified onlookers that populate the story. We're also treated, via a chorus of pipe-smoking Orson Welles figures, to those wonderfully evocative lines mined from the original story: "We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century, this world was being watched by intelligences greater than man's...intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us".
There's a kitsch awareness to all this - the performances are all slightly pastiche, heightened and folksy, embodying that innocent old radio charm. And by mashing together the theatrical stage with the radio studio, it reminded me, instantly, of Anne Washburn's The Twilight Zone at the Almeida last year*, which took a handful of stories from the original TV show and plonked them onstage in all their kooky, vintage-entertainment finery. War of the Worlds has the same vibe - a nostalgic, ironic aesthetic adorned with burnished wood cabinet radios and CBS-emblazoned microphones. All good fun, but I couldn't help wondering: is this it? Is it really committing to the Twilight Zone template, and going for a straight-to-stage, no-liberties-taken, no-licence-added, slightly-underwhelming theatrical cut-and-paste rendition of the original show?
Happily, the answer is no.
After a couple of scenes rehashing the Welles transmission, the play pushes beyond this set-up and starts to explore the various stories that have accrued around the broadcast itself. We meet men with no money to their name, fleeing across the country to escape the alien invasion; sisters who contemplate suicide and settle instead for drunken oblivion; panicked listeners calling the police en masse; and finally a young daughter abandoned as her parents and siblings escape without her.
In the present day, this story of family division is picked up by Meena, a young British podcaster who smells a story with which she can make her name. Travelling to the town of Grover's Mill, New Jersey (where the Martians began their invasion in the Welles narrative), she finds relatives of the family that deserted their daughter in the wake of the broadcast, and talks her way into their home in an attempt to find the truth.
Photos by The Other Richard
Truth, in this play, is a slippery concept. All of its characters have taken to heart some form of fiction - lies, if we're being unkind (or accurate). Meena's entry into the home is a fabrication, a familial link she doesn't actually have. The story of the abandoned daughter is disputed, blame handed out but never owned up to: there's recrimination on all sides, a plague on both their houses. Grover's Mill itself has seen reality mix with fiction: the town is a tourist spot, a shrine to an event that never happened. Even the legacy of the Welles broadcast is challenged: its original airing didn't have a huge audience, and the terror it inflicted on the population is probably one part truth, five parts popular myth.
So this is a story about fictions, built on fictions, perpetuating fictions. It's simultaneously honest about its disputed source material, and ambiguous with what it all means; the play challenges us to be objective, when its story is anything but. And it ties all this - brilliantly - into an exploration of our post-truth, fake news culture. The play is built around a central conceit: the stories we tell ourselves are central to our worldview. What we choose to believe, where we choose to locate meaning, reinforces who we are, what we stand for. But when does fiction override, or even subjugate fact? When we choose to accept a story on whether it appeals to our instincts, prejudices or opinions, regardless of its basis in fact, how do we discern between truth and lies? When we have leaders and policies that galvanise through fear and divide via suspicion - and the play doesn't obfuscate over where it's aiming these particular thought grenades - how do we engage in meaningful social discourse?
What starts off as an amusing amble into a seemingly innocent age of wholesome entertainment quickly becomes a clever discussion of how, where and why we should spend our trust and place our faith. Positioning the original radio play as an artistic factualising of fiction, Rhum and Clay follow the curve of this logic to arrive at the industrial fictionalising of fact. It's not a perfect metaphor - I don't think we can draw so direct a link between Orson Welles' use of dramatised news bulletins and the spambot culture of fakery and misinformation in which we now find ourselves collectively mired - but it's a potent allegory, and a great gateway to some intriguing questions.
It's also - and I cannot stress this enough - bags upon bags of fun. Rhum and Clay say that War of the Worlds is "a product of the love, craft and dedication of everyone in the team", and you can absolutely tell. There's a real sense of enjoyment in both the script and production, as ideas are discovered, messed around with and turned inside out. The performances are fluid, engaging and amusing, the writing is clear, surprising and resonant. There's plenty to enjoy here, in a show that is as inventive with its theatricality as it is with the notion of truth. The play exploits its dramatic medium as judiciously as Welles did with radio; the entire stage is active, and we never quite know what is coming next, or where from. Things might end up being a bit on-the-nose towards the end - there's a scene which re-configures the Welles broadcast as modern rolling news, and some slightly ham-fisted summarising dialogue that reinforces everything in case we Didn't Get The Point. But minor quibbles aside, this is a wonderful piece of theatre, created and performed with heart and intellect in spades. It runs at the New Diorama until Feb 9th, and tickets can be bought here. I'm sure it will have a longer life than this, but go see it now.
* If you missed The Twilight Zone, it's on the West End this year. Quite why it's there is a bit of a puzzler - it's a good play, but it is literally just the TV show on stage. After Washburn's fantastic Mr Burns, which saw a bunch of post-apocalyptic survivors embrace The Simpsons as high art (and split the critics along a spectrum of vicarious praise and apoplectic rage), I was expecting something a bit more layered and meaningful. Ho hum; it's amusing in its own way, and considering it's on the West End, the ticket prices are - I say this with caution, lest the producers realise their mistake - not horrifically expensive.