Since its publication in 1954, Lord of the Flies has lost some of its shock value. At a time when our headlines are filled with stories about teenage gangs and knife-crime, its tale of British schoolchildren who descend into savagery comes across as prescient but unhappily commonplace. And in a post-9/11 world of hooded, humiliated prisoners and government misdeeds, the notion that you need only scratch the surface of civilisation to uncover the rotting flesh beneath has the feel of fact rather than conjecture. But while its ideas may no longer be a surprise, the visceral power of Golding’s twentieth-century fable is undiminished. And it is this that is served so effectively by Timothy Sheader’s spectacular production of Nigel Williams’s skilful adaption of the text.
The most obvious advantage to staging a play about 11 children marooned on a desert island after a plane crash in an open-air theatre is the possibility of creating a fully-realised world – an opportunity that is not squandered here. Entering the auditorium to be confronted by a life-sized and smoking fuselage protruding through the trees is a breathtaking moment. Clothes hang from branches and bags and personal possessions spill from the hull like blood from a wound. But it’s more than just an impressive tableau; this is a fully-inhabitable, split-level landscape filled with ramps, hiding places and tail-wing vantage points. When the boys begin to fight among themselves for authority and control, the epic scale of Jon Bausor’s set is a powerful visual statement of how much is at stake.
With so many characters on stage at the same time, it’s to the credit of the young cast just how clearly delineated and memorable, at least for the most part, each one is. Leading the way is James Clay as Jack, the priggish choirmaster turned blood-smeared chieftain whose triumphal cries of “hunt the pig!” are a chilling sign of things to come. By turns insecure, petulant and rage-filled, he is compelling as a disturbed boy with a very real bloodlust for authority. Matt Ingram, meanwhile, is excellent as the increasingly unhinged and feral Roger, roaming the stage with loose-limbed lunacy as he hunts down Jack’s enemies. Of these, George Bukhari turns in a sympathetic performance as the ill-fated, shambolic, but ultimately heroic, Piggy. However, Alistair Toovey, as Ralph, is too wide-eyed and mannered in his delivery to be a convincing counterweight to Jack; we should feel his turmoil as his world collapses around him, but we don’t.
One of the successes of Sheader’s staging is that, like a Rorschach painting, it can mean as little or as much as you want it to. As well as the spectre of class tension raised by the distinction made by Ralph at the start between a school blazer and a jersey, the different ethnicities of the cast – here, the mistreated Piggy is Pakistani – widen the frame of the original to encompass a more modern racial subtext. Elsewhere, it’s remarkable how similar Jack’s rule of fear, his talk of a ‘Beast’ that can be anywhere and adopt any form, is to the rhetoric of terrorism used by various governments in the past ten years to justify the passing of ever-more restrictive and intrusive legislation. Ultimately, though, what is most distinctive about this production is its strong visual identity. Well-choreographed scenes of wild, tribal dancing and some (surprisingly effective) slowed-down moments of brutality provide it with a weight and impact that is sometimes lost in the ebb and flow of the play’s themes.