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Lord of the Flies

by on 19 April 2023

Darker Impulses

Lord of the Flies

by William Golding, adapted by Nigel Williams

Leeds Playhouse and Belgrade Coventry at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 22nd April, then on tour until 6th May

Review by Brent Muirhouse

Even though this reviewer sat in the relative cushioned safety of the stalls of Kingston’s Rose Theatre, and Lord of the Flies is a very well-known work of fiction, such was the brutality in this modern portrayal of William Golding‘s classic novel on stage, that nobody in the audience could have truly felt at ease.  With an inclusive cast that was far more interesting for their diverse ethnicities, gender identities and backgrounds (something director Amy Leach rightfully talks about the importance of in the programme), the play reimagined the original story of a group of privileged British schoolboys stranded on a deserted island following a war-time evacuation, exploring themes of power, violence, and the dark impulses that seemingly lie within the human psyche.

Max Johns’ set design was brilliantly executed, with towering palm trees and a sense of a mountain in the centre, evoking a vertigo and balancing the setting of a potentially idyllic island paradise and the growing sense of anarchy and chaos as the schoolchildren form their tribe.  The lighting (coordinated by Chris Davey) and soundscapes (by John Biddle) added to the overall sense of unease, with the unsettling compositions of deep vibrations at the play’s outset, like something lurking beneath the surface, setting the tone for what was to come.  Johns notes that they “were keen for the design to have a high contrast look, particularly for visually impaired audiences”, yet this choice also artistically created a bold and stark abstract version of existence.  Even the initial costume choice of red, white and black colours on school uniforms seemed deliberately vivid, and foreshadowing of the shades of blood and gore that follows.

The ensemble cast was energetic, frantic and chaotic to good effect, each member bringing their own unique perspective and ability to their role.  The diversity in casting added a fresh perspective to the story, as the dynamics between the characters were reshaped in new and interesting ways.  In particular, the female casting of the chief of the tribe Ralph (Angela Jones), who takes a more measured approach than male rival Jack (Patrick Dineen), who in turn becomes increasingly fixated on hunting both the wild pig of the island and bullying Piggy (Jason Connor), creates an underlying message that we should challenge gung-ho patriarchal principles.  The pair ably steer the play, taking on a huge proportion of its narrative, but it is Adam Fenton’s turn as the perceived outcast Simon that is a standout performance, reaching an apex (literally and figuratively) when delivering the hallucinatory monologue, from which the play takes its name.  It was performed with an unerring emotive quality, bringing the audience deep into the character’s spirit.

One of the most engaging elements of the production was the use of expressive signing, which added an extra layer of depth in illustrating the group’s changing dynamic and its breakdown in communication, as well as adding to the accessibility to the play.  Meanwhile, all characters in the play used expressive signing to highlight key parts of the narrative, with Eric (Ciaran O’Breen) and Sam (Eloise Pennycott) delivering outstanding performances almost exclusively through signing.  Meanwhile, the available audio description for the play is creatively done by using the voices of the unseen background characters (“the little ‘uns”), adding much more than the bare necessities to the experience of those audience members requiring or wanting to make use of it. 

If there were to be a criticism, it might be that some of the characters’ moods and viewpoints were so quickly and suddenly changed it felt at times a little confusing to know when and how this had happened, especially amongst the relative camouflaged cover of the darkened lighting and brash soundscapes.  This said, if this reviewer were more in tune politically, perhaps this blurring could be seen to be a metaphor for the ease of sway and lack of loyalty in modern party politics, something that seems even more resonant in the present day than perhaps the time Golding’s Lord of the Flies island was first put on the map in 1954 during the more navigable currents of a Winston Churchill government and a Hugh Gaitskell opposition.

This Leeds Playhouse production of Lord of the Flies was a powerful and thought-provoking exploration of humanity’s darkest impulses, really packing a punch (without too much of spoiler, literally and figuratively).  The creative measures to make the play accessible also stood out as a means to enhance the production as whole, allowing the breadth of the cast to frantically spiral through Golding’s classic dystopia, exploring the depths of the human psyche and the complex dynamics of group behaviour.  As the last actions took place on the island, and the cast took their plaudits in their curtain call, the eeriness of this journey of bleak descent still lingered.  This sense of being unnerved continued to resonate as I left the theatre to the streetlights of suburbia, walking out into a cold April night, perhaps a little more wary of those around me after this brutal examination of one side of the human condition.

Brent Muirhouse, April 2023

Photography by Anthony Robling

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