Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies adapted for the stage from William Golding’s novel by Nigel Williams.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Kip Williams, at Roslyn Packer Theatre July 23 – August 24, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 10 Matinee 1:30pm

Cast and Creatives:
Photos by Zan Wimberley

…I see the gender of the characters as being central to the critical investigation of the work.  The characters of Lord of the Flies are all boys.  More specifically, they are all white, able bodied, and ostensibly cis gender and straight-identifying boys.  Lord of the Flies is not simply a story about “humanity”.  Rather I see it as being specifically about toxic masculine cultures.
Kip Williams

I thought that too when I first read the novel as a teenager after, at the age of seven, having been terrified when surrounded by older boys, jeering at me and challenging me to fight.

So I am glad that Kip Williams has taken the stage version out of the 1950s and brought us into today’s world of new gender understanding.

So how does he do it?

Some will love the result – especially the young.  Others will dislike the theatrical device intensely.  Let me explain.

The conception of this production involves role play at several levels.  While finding our seats, Level 1 is in play. 

The stage is open; the fluorescent backstage working lights are on; the only objects on stage are several large boxes on wheels, perhaps for props or other equipment, and a tall scaffolding tower, presumably for rigging lights.  A long piece of whitish material, maybe a couple of metres wide and reaching the floor, is hung loosely from an upstage lighting bar – as if left over from some previous set.

It appears that the stage is “dark” – that is, not being used.  Some actors, dressed in a range of non-descript ‘backstage’ clothing, wander about apparently aimlessly.  Not doing actorly warm-ups, even.

I watched for ten minutes before everyone was seated, when someone on stage began tapping on a box.  Others joined in the rhythm.  Role play Level 1 became clear: these were actors playing being actors.

They are a diverse bunch – variously ethnic and coloured, ranging from a basketball tall guy (Joseph Althouse) through middle height people and quite short, and including one disabled guy using a crutch (Daniel Monks).

In the program  I read Nyx Calder’s ‘personal note from a proud member’ of the cast – a “non-binary and transmasculine actor, artist and storyteller”.  I empathised with his experience as “victim of toxic masculinity” and sympathised with his sometimes being “seen as female, sometimes…as male, and other times I’ve been seen as a disruptive question that other people feel obliged to answer”.

But it was another Level or two before I appreciated that “Kip nor anyone else prescribed what being ‘male’ is to me, allowing my instincts and impulses to trump any preconceived notions of ‘what boys are like’."

The cast of STC's Lord of the Flies, 2019

Level 1 turned very soon in to Level 2: actors being actors playing eleven-year-old children.  The scenario seemed to be a drama group improvisation workshop such as I often have used as a teaching device. Each actor had a name of a boy from Lord of the Flies, seemingly taking on their character in whatever way they felt was right.  Being female, male, non-binary or trans was of no concern.  Ralph, Jack, Maurice, Percival and Eric were girls.  Since we were watching actors pretending to be children, it didn’t matter.

Contessa Treffone, Yerin Ha, Mia Wasikowska, Rahel Romahn and
Justin Amankwah in STC's Lord of the Flies, 2019

This morphed into a ‘workshop taken to performance level’ as the actor/children found objects to use such as the tower which became the hill on the island on which the parachutist landed (the long whitish cloth).  So we were now seeing Role Play Level 3, in which actors are playing actors who as children have been cast as characters with dialogue adapted from Lord of the Flies, with mysteriously added lighting, sound and props, including a conch shell, a pig’s head, lots of stage blood, real fire and smoke, and a great deal of mess.

The cast of STC's Lord of the Flies, 2019

Contessa Treffone, Mark Paguio, Rahel Romahn and Daniel Monks in
STC's Lord of the Flies, 2019

The cast of STC's Lord of the Flies, 2019

While drama teachers and young actors will recognise the excitement Nyx Calder describes as the “friction between actor and character” and how when “enough pieces fall into place you find yourself with bottled lightning, beautiful and unreplicable”, others (like at least one audience member I spoke to) may dislike intensely the mess and be worried about the risk of real danger – which actually occurred on this Saturday matinee.

We saw, perhaps Role Play Level minus 1, when live sparks from ashes being thrown at each other on stage flew out into Row A and the action was stopped.  While the actors left the stage as they realised with great concern what had happened, stage crew and front of house rapidly assisted a woman to leave the auditorium.

Action was re-started by the stage manager, but even with a consummate cast such as this the final twenty minutes lost a little of the energy, and was perhaps slightly less frightening and dramatically powerful than I’m sure it would have been otherwise.

Mia Wasikowska as Ralph and the cast of STC's Lord of the Flies, 2019
Rahel Romahn as Piggy in STC's Lord of the Flies, 2019

 So Kip Williams and the creative team, with this stunning array of actors, has produced a very interesting take on Golding’s original work.  I found the show highly worthwhile for its implications, often frightening, in the context of world politics today; and remarkable for being “nothing short of revolutionary for someone like me” – that is like Nyx Calder.

But not everyone will like what was a form of alienation-effect a level or two beyond anything Bertolt Brecht ever imagined.  But be brave.  You should not miss this Lord of the Flies.

The cast of STC's Lord of the Flies, 2019 - Curtain Call