Writer: Nigel Williams from the book by William Golding
Director: Timothy Sheader
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
William Golding’s book, Lord of the Flies, was quite shocking when first published in 1954. With the war well within living memory, the idea that British boys might not behave with absolute propriety was unthinkable. So the brutal story of a group of boys marooned on an island and their descent into anarchy and savagery despite the moderating voices of some of their number was almost inconceivable. And yet, maybe we all sometimes feel that the veneer of respectability and democracy is thin, needing little to strip it away altogether.
A group of boys are being evacuated by air to get away from “the bombs” when they crash onto an uninhabited island. And this is our first experience as we enter the cavernous Butterworth Hall at Warwick Arts Centre: a large stage dominated by the broken fuselage of the plane. Different levels are achieved through the use of the wings and tailplane that also double up as hills, the forest and caves. It is a striking and bleak image, made more so as its entropy inexorably increases and it decays, mirroring the decay of decency in the boys.
At the beginning, we meet Ralph (Luke Ward-Wilkinson) and Piggy (Lee Rae). Ralph is happy-go-lucky, excited to explore and to be free of the shackles of adult expectations. Piggy is more level-headed: he is interested in rules and, especially, meetings. They find a conch shell and Ralph is able to play a note that attracts a choir dressed in academic robes and mortar boards and led by Jack, the choir prefect. Jack (Freddie Watkins) is clear that they should behave as they do at school, using surnames and lining up. This motley group try to do the right thing, electing a leader by popular vote – Ralph – which immediately alienates Jack.
As time passes, Ralph realises that youthful exuberance is not enough and that old school values and morality are necessary while Jack descends into bullying and savagery. The scenes of casual bullying of Piggy and the epileptic Simon (Kennan Munn-Francis) are disturbing and very uncomfortable to watch. Ultimately, there is a schism – will the boys follow Ralph and Piggy and take a line of reasonableness and tolerance; or will they follow the dictatorial Jack with his promise of excitement in the hunt? Before the interval, we witness the dismantling, brick by brick, of any attempt at civilisation and this sometimes feels slow; afterwards, it is altogether more savage, chilling, fast-moving and tragic.
This is a tale very much of its time. This production has introduced some contemporary notes – the boys take a group selfie – but it is hard to believe this group came from anywhere other than post-War Britain. Jack’s rebellion is a terribly proper one and it’s hard to truly believe in it. The question that immediately rises to the lips is, “Where are the girls?”. It’s bizarre to imagine that only public schoolboys would be considered worthy of evacuation to safety these days.
Ward-Wilkinson is excellent as Ralph. He clearly displays how peer pressure can destroy his loyalty to his new friend Piggy and his despair at the rise of Jack. Rae’s Piggy similarly is excellent as he tries to get the other boys to listen and follow some sort of rule of law: his disbelief and despair when they won’t and don’t is clear. Watkins’ Jack is unsettling in his arbitrariness, yet there is still a feeling of the little boy requiring endorsement in his posturing.
There is much to commend in this production the set (designed by Jon Bausor) and soundscape from Avgoustos Psillas and Nick Powell go a long way to setting the scene. Timothy Sheader’s direction is sharp, making good use of lighting and slow motion to heighten the savagery; indeed, the choreographed movement around the stage is a joy to watch – if occasionally unnerving too. The central performances are effective. But it feels like a period piece in its language and structure – which the book, of course, is. Nevertheless, it is well worth making the effort to see.
Runs until27 February 2015 and on tour| Image: Johan Persson