Gameshow’s Nuclear Future is charged with anxiety. The solo performer Leda Douglas is pressed into a corner of the studio, as bars of light and shade play over her body. The soundscape howls with sirens, blaring out emergencies. Anxiety even pervades the structure of the show in the short scenes, sharply divided by blackouts. The story unfolds in fits and starts, never quite settling into a rhythm that would allow the audience to watch comfortably.
Although set in the present day, the feeling Nuclear Future evokes conjures up the fear of nuclear destruction during the Cold War – a constant on-edgedness of contemplating the unthinkable. Children were particularly susceptible to absorbing the dread, practising nuclear drills at school and subjected to cheery public information films such as ‘Duck and Cover’ starring Bert the Turtle – a classic case of a paternalistic urge to protect creating more fear. Growing up in London in the 90s and 2000s, my greatest fear was being caught up in a terrorist attack. Today’s young people are growing up under the threat of ecological catastrophe, and trying to persuade people in power to acknowledge their fears as based in reality.
In Nuclear Future, Douglas plays a nuclear scientist who is also a mother, or a mother who is also a nuclear scientist; the tension between these two roles provides the central conflict of the monologue. The show starts with a lecture on the science of nuclear fusion, illustrated by graphics projected onto the walls. Two atoms fuse together to form one, releasing a huge amount of energy in the reaction. Before the creation of the first nuclear bomb in 1945, Douglas’ character tells us, this energy had never been released into the universe. Throughout, the huge scale of the universe is contrasted with the comparative briefness of human lifespan. ‘In a hundred years, we’ll all be dead’, Douglas’ character observes cheerfully. Once a nuclear bomb has been detonated, the affected area will not be inhabitable for generations. Given humans’ relatively brief time spent on the earth, how have we managed to create such destruction?
Between the scenes of the lecture, Douglas’ character emerges through phone calls with her father and text conversations with her daughter. Yet, despite Leda Douglas’ rich performance, the character she plays seems to get stuck between maternal archetype, in the urge to protect her daughter, and genuine individual. As the performance progresses and her relationship with her daughter starts to deteriorate, Douglas’ character gets into a tight spot. As a scientist, she loves nuclear weapons. She is fascinated by their power and how they work. However, by working in this area, she is putting her daughter in danger. Indeed, not just her daughter but the survival of the planet in general, an insight that the play hints at but never quite reaches in using the trope of the child to represent the future.
In her lecture, Douglas’ character dwells on how difficult it is for humans to conceive of the power and impact of nuclear weapons. The plot that follows the mother’s relationship with her daughter brings the issues down to a comprehensible scale. However, despite the big issues it’s grappling with, the show feels a little slight. It seems like the text has been written to serve the lighting, video and sound design (impressively designed by Joshua Pharo and Dominic Kennedy). Nuclear Future seems more of a collage-like musing on the subject of nuclear weapons rather than providing new insights – until the climax of the show. The low-level anxiety that has thrummed through the piece explodes into the open, as visual and verbal images are stacked on top of each other. At last, the writing feels electric and dangerous.
Gameshow’s Nuclear Future is on tour this month; the next date is 29th October at Doncaster Cast. More info here.