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Lord of the Flies

William Golding, adapted by Nigel Williams
Lazarus Theatre Company in association with Greenwich Theatre
Greenwich Theatre
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A promise of “strong and stable leadership” proves, in reality, to mean a few initial mis-steps, followed by destabilising mayhem and finally anarchical meltdown. The British government vowing to take the UK forward with confidence; or, a bunch of boys on a desert island seeking to ensure their own survival and rescue?

Certainly, and troublingly, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies retains its relevance, and this production by Lazarus Theatre Company at the Greenwich Theatre sneaks in some neat topical references which the young members of the large and appreciative audience will undoubtedly have recognised and appreciated.

Kinetic dynamism, aural hyperactivity, choreographic imagination: director Ricky Dukes, music and sound technician Nicola Chan and movement director Julia Cave more than fulfil our expectations of Lazarus’s viscerally charged production style. Dukes’s theatrical mode is one which prioritises motion, music and minimalist design: here we have just a few props—a conch shell, some spears, a few orange chairs that stand in for the logs by the lagoon where the schoolboys meet to discuss their strategies and schemes.

Before the play begins, the bare Greenwich Theatre stage is peopled by adolescents in hoodies working out to a febrile vibe, though disturbingly their disciplined calisthenics soon begin to dissolve into contorted twitchings and convulsions. The play opens with a vibrant physical microcosm of Golding’s descent from decency to Dante-esque darkness: motions redolent of school playing field fair-play morph into the spiralling descent of the plane that crash-lands in ‘paradise’. It’s exciting and captivating; it’s also a very high pitch from which to commence a portrayal of gradually escalating ‘savagery’.

And, this is one of the weaknesses of this production. Golding’s novel is meticulously structured to chart the incremental stages of the boys’ loss of moral compass; indeed, the chapter-by-chapter decline seems to offer a perfect form for the inexorable ratcheting up of dramatic tension. In this gender-blind production, however, the boys’ civility and shared mores are not strongly emphasised at the start. The most jarring note is the way that the conch—whose resounding call swirls compellingly around the auditorium—is not respected as a relic of civilisation but is instead tossed about like a beachball by the over-exuberant adolescents.

The updating of the action might be problematic in this regard, for it's hard to find parallels for the rules and codes which characterised school life in the 1940s. So, when Jack’s gang arrives at the lagoon, they are a noisy, ill-disciplined crowd far removed from images of decorous choirboys processing in pairs. Moreover, Matt Penson’s Jack, despite initially exuding an aristocratic self-confidence and easy authority, almost immediately reveals himself as a bullying thug, his RP English slipping into a yobbish drawl as he intimidates Piggy—a drawl which very quickly becomes unalleviated coarse roar.

So, we do not witness the progressive stages of decline, so carefully crafted by Golding, or the almost reluctant casting off of moral mantles which might create pathos. Jack is a bloodthirsty, spear-wielding ‘hunter’ from the first, rather than a public schoolboy who initially pulls back from plunging his knife into the pig, recognising what “an enormity the downward stroke would be” and who, after his first kill, noticing pig’s blood on his hands “grimaced distastefully”.

His choir are not children who still feel “the unease of wrong-doing” but thugs who relish anarchy. Indeed, Darcy Willison’s disturbingly intense stare and prowling menace reveal Roger to be an irredeemable psychopath, rather than a troubled child who, held back by “the taboo of the old life”, resists the temptation to hit a younger boy who is protected by a circle of “parents and school and policeman and the law”.

The fever-pitch intensity of the drama is enhanced further by the sometimes deafening volume; the almost unceasing thump of a threatening beat forces the cast to shout, and as they cavort about the stage, race around the auditorium, disappear under dishevelled ‘tents’ to one side of the auditorium, or are swallowed by densely billowing smoke, words disappear into a general howl of rage, bloodlust and fear.

Despite this, there are many fine performances to enjoy. Alice Hutchinson is a sympathetic Ralph and captures his confusion and anxiety as he recognises his own weaknesses and flaws. Tommy Carmichael’s Piggy heavily channels Peter Brook’s 1963 film, but his bespectacled asthmatic possessed of vision and wisdom is no less convincing for that. As the twins ‘Sam ‘n’ Eric’, Larissa Teale and David Angland skilfully depict the starkly contrasting ways in which twins may respond to trauma.

The only false note is the presentation of Simon, and it’s not the fault of Benjamin Victor who speaks eloquently and whose demeanour aptly conveys Simon’s otherworldliness. The problem is that in the novel, Simon is depicted less through dialogue than through symbolic descriptive passages of beautifully poetic prose which reveal the child’s metaphysical perceptiveness. Forced thus to invent new speech for Simon, adapter Nigel Williams has opted for a strangely fragmented idiom which suggests an almost autistic disconnectedness rather than transfiguring insight: “The … sky … is … diff-e-rent … here.”

As always with Lazarus, though, there are some inventive and striking coups de théâtre. The quasi-balletic choreography of Simon’s death creates real pathos. Alone on the cliffside, as Roger prepares to push the murderous boulder, Piggy’s literal and figurative ‘darkness’ is wonderfully communicated by the blinding flash-beam that whirls around the auditorium before both the light and Piggy are sucked into a bottomless vortex.

The final hunt whips up a shocking terror, visceral and violent. But, the arrival of ‘civilisation’ in the form of a British naval officer does not bring reconciliation or resolution. Golding’s ‘rescuer’ “grinned cheerfully” at the unkempt, petrified Ralph, reflecting affectionately that the “kid needed a bath, a hair-cut, a nose-wipe and a good deal of ointment”. Dukes gives us a chilling disembodied voice (Jennifer Shakesby), straight out of 1984, which rebukes and intimidates the dirty, exhausted boys, ordering them to stand and form a line, and contemptuously disparaging their loss of ‘English’ values.

So, at the close, we are left not with Ralph’s tears “for the end of innocence… and for the fall through the air of his true, wise friend called Piggy”, but with terror and tyranny.

Claire Seymour