Everything in X is slightly off-kilter. Literally. Merle Hensel’s great grey box of a set is permanently tilted at an angle. The sort of angle that’s just enough to shift your perspective on your surroundings. The sort of angle that’s just enough to start you questioning things.
The same goes for the psychic world inhabited by the characters in Alistair McDowall’s new play. It’s a physical and mental landscape that is out of joint. It’s also out of time. The collection of crew members occupying this bland, functional capsule are billions of miles away from home and the rest of humanity, clinging on at the far reaches of the solar system. The sun is barely a faint flicker this far out; it is, as one character puts it, “one long night”. No days, no markers, nothing to hold onto except technology. And technology can go wrong.
That’s just what has happened as the play opens. Or, at least, something has gone wrong. After an eighteen-month stay, the first scientists to colonise Pluto are due to be picked up and returned to Earth. Except Earth isn’t answering the phone. There’s been no contact for three weeks and the crew at the research base are starting to get restless. “We’re all a bit … fraught,” says second-in-command Gilda (a nervily hair chewing, cereal chomping Jessica Raine), with delicious understatement.
At first, X is essentially a workplace drama – if one with heightened stakes and shrunken surroundings. Imagine being trapped in the same featureless space with your workmates for months on end and you begin to get the picture. The situation is desperate, but also banal. Colleagues bicker over contracts and kill the time with games of Guess Who. There are arguments about who hasn’t done the cleaning. Nerves are frayed.
But then McDowall’s play mutates. Just as it threatens to drag, its pulse – and ours – quickens. Ray (Darrell D’Silva), the captain of the crew and the astronaut who shipped them all out to Pluto, starts seeing things in the empty gloom of the not-quite-planet. Cole (Rhudi Dharmalingam) notices that the clocks have been going back by themselves. There’s a glitch in the system, a ghost in the machine. No one knows how long they’ve been stranded here, and no one is coming to pick them up. Suddenly we’re in the realm of psychological thriller, the confined research base (packed with provisions that will outlast them all) becoming a pressure cooker for the crew’s fears and tensions.
And then things get stranger. And stranger. And stranger. As the display on the digital clock scrambles, so too does time and memory and identity. Ray’s not the only one who’s seeing things. Or is he? There’s a crew member who’s maybe a crew member, or maybe a ghost, or maybe an echo of a memory, or maybe their rescuer. Maybe. False memories multiply and compete. Months or years or decades slip by. Nothing can be trusted. Eventually, even language breaks down, fracturing into single syllables and then just a vomited stream of ‘X’s. All that holds it together at the centre is Gilda, who’s sent spiralling further and further into herself.
It’s baffling and bewildering, but then it’s meant to be. The whole point of X lies in the same ambiguity that characterises its title. X can mean many things. A kiss. An error. The elusive answer to an equation. X marks the spot. In McDowall’s play it is all of these and more. And it’s distinctly, thrillingly theatrical. Sat in our seats at the Royal Court, watching these bodies on stage in front of us, we’re more aware of time passing than we would be behind a screen, where the pause function is always just a tap away. We feel time, which is crucial to this play about time dissolving.
Vicky Featherstone’s production, meanwhile, makes equally canny use of the space of the theatre to tell this fractured narrative. Prolonged blackouts dare us to see our own fears in the enveloping darkness. In between, Lee Curran’s lighting casts a queasy, subtly shifting synthetic glow, under which the characters sweat and squirm. Nick Powell’s sound design, with its nods to sci-fi, gestures towards the cinematic while working with the performances to slowly turn up the tension in a way that only a live art form can. And when things fall apart, Tal Rosner’s video designs transform the dull walls of this enclosed space capsule, twisting the strange world of the stage that bit further out of alignment.
What’s most haunting about X, though, is not the exhilarating theatrical effects or the familiar hint of space horror: the little girl at the window, the spectre of something scary in the deep, deep darkness of outer space. The production is having fun with these elements – and temporarily spooking the hell out of its audience in the process – but what lingers afterwards is the exposed fragility of time and memory. That out-of-joint-ness that doesn’t quite go away after walking out of the theatre and allowing the world to right itself.
Because we might not be on Pluto, but our senses of self are no more robust, really, than Gilda’s. Strip away clocks and relationships and familiar places and things and what are you left with? As McDowall himself has pointed out, in some ways it’s not really all that significant that the play takes place on Pluto; it’s the extreme distance of this place from home and all things known that really matters. And time is both as artificially constructed and as inexorable in its passage for us as it is for this imagined crew. The implicit questions raised – about what we remember, and what we don’t remember, and how we hold onto an idea of who we are – resonate far beyond any sci-fi setting (and the best sci-fi does, after all, have a habit of playing on our deepest fears and preoccupations).
The other thing that haunts is the pervasive atmosphere of loss. X isn’t just a play about being far from home. The home these characters yearn for is one that has already been lost – ravaged for profit and rapidly consuming itself. The snippets of information we gradually glean about this future Earth are horrifically bleak: birds have fallen from the sky, whole continents have been swallowed by the sea, trees have disappeared. It’s ecological crisis writ large. The skill of McDowall’s writing, though, is to imbue these horrors with a chilling normality. This is just the way things are. (And, I sense with a shiver, it is just the way things will be if we continue down our current track of blithe environmental destruction.)
Then again, that’s just one way of seeing it. Tilt your head at another angle and other interpretations reveal themselves. That’s the beauty and the occasional frustration of McDowall’s play, which refuses to narrow possibilities. Like that huge, off-centre grey box, it’s a container for meanings and fears and memories. X, after all, can mean many things.
X is on at the Royal Court until 7th May 2016. Click here for tickets.