Nuclear War @ Royal Court, Upstairs: Three Little Seconds

I’m loathe to use the word ‘interesting’ because all too often ‘interesting’ is made a euphemism for ‘bad,’ but Nuclear War in the Royal Court Upstairs is nothing if not interesting. Interesting in terms of form, design, performance, in conception… I’m not sure I’ve seen anything quite like it before. I don’t really have a vocabulary with which I can analyse it, which is of course exactly why I’m doing it.

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The audience walks into a room built inside the Upstairs space. Beige and blank, carpeted, two rows of mismatched dining chairs are placed around the perimeter – I plumped for a metal framed, leather cushioned one. Strip lights on the floor against the wall make the room glow, like an ember long after the flames have died. Lighting plays an important role, carving up the space, shifting from orange to blood red to sulphurous yellow, into greens and blues. It can fill and split the space, follow actors as they dart around. If the piece is one primarily of ‘movement,’ that goes for the lighting as well as the flesh and blood on stage. I kept thinking about shadows, the idea of something human but not quite, the absence of personhood, and the idea of shadows on the pavement of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s almost certainly a projection on my part.

The text, by Simon Stephens, is a 12-page monologue/prose-poem directed by Imogen Knight; the text is there to serve the visual interpretation. Stephens prefaces the text with, and draws particular attention to the instruction ‘all these words may be spoken by the performers but none of them need to be.’ The text is presented mostly complete, albeit sometimes filtered through distortion effects. Much is pre-recorded, further internalising the monologue, situating us all the more clearly inside this unnamed woman’s head.

That’s what it is, but what it’s about is far more slippery. Stephens leaves the text completely open to interpretation and I’m not sure Knight wants us to understand her interpretation either, at least in no way that’s definitive. This immediately forces you to pay attention to every little detail – whatever brain work-out I was missing from Carousel (which I saw earlier the same day,) I was getting here. My understanding of the piece is that it’s from the perspective of a woman grieving for her partner (husband?) and who makes a trip into the city(?) to get the physical contact she craves. Something has shifted in her grief, she no longer wants to stay in her house, apparently alone. She gets dressed. She leaves.

She goes into the city craving physical, possibly sexual contact, seeking out men, furiously monologuing at a man sat opposite her on the tube. She sees “the most beautiful women [she’s] ever seen in [her] whole life.” It’s not straightforward heterosexual impulses then, its more fluid, more generally human. She wants to be with people, she wants to be touched. It becomes about the need to be wanted and felt by people, more emotional than physical, juxtaposed with the ceaseless movement and physicality of the cast.

The actors (performers?) are certainly working their arses off. They contort and dart and thrust and shakes their bodies through the 45 minutes; Maureen Beattie plays the woman on her odyssey with assurance, with 4 other performers filling out the cast. My eye was in particular drawn to Andrew Sheridan, who you could practically hear listening to the play.

*

When a piece is as abstract as Nuclear War, you inevitably scratch for anything you can find. The ideas of fallout, emotional and physical after a loss. The idea of contamination. There’s plenty of suggestions, which is exactly what Stephens says the text is. The brevity of the piece makes it even more unstable; there is no grand arc to be swept along by, you simply have to jump from moment to moment, trying to join the dots.

Plenty of questions, no reassuring answers. Nothing that settles easily.

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