Features Published 9 May 2016

X: A postscript

At the end of last week, Alistair McDowall's X finished its run at the Royal Court. Without fear of spoilers, Duška Radosavljević offers a post mortem review that explores the metaphor at its heart.
Duska Radosavljevic
X at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

X at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Alistair McDowall’s X at the Royal Court was a kind of piece that took a while to get into, and then it took a while to get out of – mostly thanks to the haunting effect of its apparent ‘unknown quantity’-ness. It had me thinking for days, so it makes sense to keep talking about it even after its run has ended.

I was curious to read what others wrote about X. I don’t want to keep perpetuating a stereotype that can and should be overcome quite easily in the years to come but I was disappointed that once again there was a marked difference between the newspaper and online coverage of a non-naturalist play. Although somewhat intrigued, most of the established critics were quick to surrender their analytical tools and dismiss the possibility that the play was about anything important, while it was the online writers Andrew Haydon, Catherine Love and Stewart Pringle that went past the surface effect of the piece and engaged into an investigation of its themes.

Perhaps one thing that gets in the way of the newspaper critics’ depth of inquiry is the prevailing anxiety about giving something away – the ‘spoilers’. Perhaps it is the sense of urgency to be the first to declare a verdict. Perhaps it is the need to avoid being influenced by somebody else’s opinion. These are the problems that I remember well from personal experience of reviewing, but I also remember that the greatest pleasure in reading criticism I’ve ever had was when reading other people’s reviews of shows which I had seen and already reviewed. Perhaps we would all find it a lot more pleasurable to talk to each other about what we see. Perhaps by removing the often commercially-driven element of competition in punditry, we can actually begin to engage with work in more meaningful and more valuable ways.

To that end, I propose the form of a post mortem review – it needs a better name than that – a sort of review that is published after the end of the run, without the fear of giving anything away and with the full obligation of getting to the bottom of what the piece tried to achieve. If reviews are to represent any sort of a valuable document for the future, they need to try and get a bit further than recognizing that X, in this case, could stand for a number of things. My small contribution to such collective effort would be this short dramaturgical dissection of the piece. It is worth noting that as a dramaturg I am looking for one core idea around which the various themes of the piece can be seen to hang. So this is not supposed to oversimplify the potential thematic multiplicity of the play or to substitute the incisive, beautiful and sometimes mind-boggling analyses of the piece offered by other writers, but an attempt to offer one potential integrated response to the question of what this play is about.

First, the problem: I would assume that most people, myself included, were drawn to this play because of last year’s success of McDowall’s Pomona (originally at the Orange Tree theatre, subsequently on at the NT Shed). Like X, Pomona was also an experiment in structure and genre (and thanks to Ned Bennet’s non-naturalistic direction, a memorable achievement in terms of staging too). Unlike X, Pomona gave us a satisfyingly circular journey, a computer game-like sense of movement through the narrative which did not significantly obscure its central thematic concerns. X‘s unconventional structure and deliberate experimentation with genre, on the other hand, is more in the vein of Sarah Kane’s Blasted. A journey is set up and then blasted apart for a reason that is not immediately discernable in either narrative or thematic terms. A number of potential themes do suggest themselves throughout, and yet I would argue the play’s thematic focus is actually very, very particular and quite clearly thought through – if, however, wrapped up in several layers of metaphor.

Here a brief contextual description might help: The play opens as a piece of naturalism and with the characteristic gesture of characters in mid-conversation in which all expositional information is buried deep below the surface. This forces the audience to have to listen very carefully to what is being said, and leads to the kind of theatre where the actors mostly just sit around talking. Their setting in the first half of X is a space station on Pluto which however looks very much like a family kitchen. The ship is initially captained by Ray and eventually by his ‘second in command’ Gilda; the rest of the crew includes scientists Clark, Cole and their potential saviour Mattie. But much of this is a red herring. As is the writer’s choice of genre.

McDowall apparently delivers on the sci fi front in the first half of the play evoking a number of references familiar to fans. Dramaturgically the most obvious feature is the non-chronological sequence of the scenes on Pluto – the significance of time and its slipperiness is also emphasized by a working digital clock hanging above the stage. Underlying this narrative is a subtly post-apocalyptic concern with ecology – distant memories of eating meat, distant memories of birdsong, distant memories of trees.

A vital clue is planted at the very end of the play when Gilda’s daughter asks for a (bedtime) story, and specifically a story of her own mother, and Gilda begins by saying:

‘My mother.

Was the last tree.’

In order to grasp its core, therefore, I suggest that we should read this play from its end backwards. In some ways the proceedings following the interval seem to belong to a completely different world and a completely different set of concerns. Here we are confronted with the theme of loss: in narrative terms – a loss of hope in being saved, loss of a loved one to cancer, loss of the past, loss of one’s own faculties, loss of language to express oneself, and in theatrical terms – a gradual erosion of the (naturalistic) sense of time and place. Gilda, the ‘reluctant captain of her space ship’ is revealed to be just a mother all along, a mother needing to keep her family and her own sanity together in the aftermath of a bereavement. Looking back on the first half of the play from this vantage point we might wonder whether being stuck on Pluto is in fact an analogy for a mental state of grief, and furthermore whether the loss of a loved one is necessarily and most accurately expressed by means of a metaphor in a theatre context.

In other words: could the loss of a parent be read as equivalent to the loss of a planet?

And vice versa, in fact”¦

Alistair McDowall’s X was on at the Royal Court from the 30th March until the 7th May. You can read our interview with Alistair McDowall here

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Duska Radosavljevic

Duska Radosavljevic is a dramaturg, teacher and scholar. She is the author of Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century (2013) and editor of The Contemporary Ensemble: Interviews with Theatre-Makers (2013). Duska has also contributed to The Stage Newspaper since 1998 as well as a number of academic and online publications in English and in Serbian.

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