At last year’s Rhum and Clay show, Mistero Buffo, I was delighted by solo performer Julian Spooner’s ability to switch seamlessly between multiple distinct characters while maintaining complete narrative clarity. In The War of the Worlds, the cast is multiplied by four and fortunately so is the multi-roling excellence. December may be over and we’re far from the White House, but this production could be Donald’s hallucinated fever dream version of A Christmas Carol; it’s a fast-paced tour of fake news of the past, present and future, guided by an otherworldly ensemble of mischievous shapeshifters.
The show is inspired by, and at times recites verbatim, Orson Welles’ 1938 radio dramatization of HG Wells’ ubiquitous alien invasion story. The company, in collaboration with playwright Isley Lynn, do a brilliant job of recreating both the form and feel of audio content. Honestly, I’d have left the New Diorama satisfied if they had used up their whole runtime performing the entire broadcast. The ensemble’s synchronicity is mesmerising, it feels as if we are watching them interpret the source material in real time. One moment their bodies are tightly packed, amorphous, the next they snap apart, creating environments articulated with real specificity. Lighting designers Nick Flintoff and Pete Maxey work their way through the sci fi colour wheel, illuminating the cast in the cool blues of reflected spaceship metal, then the molten reds of invasion, until finally hitting on the most sci fi colour of them all, that Marvin the Martian green. Here, the imaginative worlds that the broadcast must have created in the minds of listeners are given vivid physical form.
This production is less interested in the original radio drama’s content though, and more interested in its effect. The broadcast simulated the form of real news bulletins, and in doing so apparently incited hysteria in a populace unable to identify the difference between fact and fiction. If that makes Welles the grandfather of fake news, then The War of the Worlds quickly identifies his honorary granddaughter; in the present day, Meena (Mona Goodwin) is a social media influencer and host of an investigative podcast. She visits a family in New Jersey to discover and record the story of an abandoned relative, but doesn’t receive the responses she needs. Journalistic integrity is quickly abandoned as she begins chipping away at the truth like a block of marble, sculpting it into perfect narrative form.
Is Meena’s ethically dubious relationship with the truth a product of our time? Just like Orson Welles, she trying to tell a story, to provide listeners with a hit of vicarious emotion. Welles himself appears (played with relish by the entire cast) and boastfully recounts the methods he used to manipulate his audience, while a montage of terrified listeners reacts. The show challenges us not to assume that the past was all ‘There is no news’ integrity while the present is all ‘Eating The Onion’ idiocy (we’ve all done it, you can only hope it was in private and not shared with all your friends, family and colleagues). Benjamin Grant’s clever sound design helps us to quickly acclimatise to a show which continuously weaves between different times and places and forms of media. If only he could do the sound design for me looking at my twitter feed.
On that note, a truly alien presence is the small rectangular devices that appear with increasing frequency in the hands of the cast, shining bright light into their faces. It’s an invasion that goes unreported. Really, our relationship with the truth has always been defined by our means of accessing it and, right now, we’re living pure science fiction.
‘At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me; I seem to watch it all from the outside, from somewhere inconceivably remote, out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all’ – HG Wells, The War of the Worlds
‘The world is and always has been a nightmare, it just seems worse now because of our phones’ – Andy Samberg, Opening Monologue 2019 Golden Globes Awards
The War of the Worlds is on at New Diorama until 9th February 2019. More info here.