Writer: Jean-Paul Sartre
Director: David Furlong
Reviewer: David Guest
A buzz of excitement has surrounded the 10thanniversary revival of Exchange Theatre’s innovative and revolutionary production of Sartre’s The Flies at the Bunker Theatre this summer.
There is every reason for this eager anticipation: the production put Exchange Theatre firmly on the map and won awards as well as being a lifebelt for the struggling fringe company, while Exchange itself is renowned for its creativity, its use of multi-cultural and minority casts and a rebellious streak of which Sartre himself would have been proud.
Additionally, at the Bunker the play is being presented in English and in French on alternate weeks, which ones sense the energetic, multi-lingual cast will take in its stride.
Whether you see The Flies or Les Mouches the question must be, does it live up to all the hype? Does it speak as loudly and as clearly as it did when Sartre wrote it or indeed as it did when it became Exchange’s first big hit 10 years ago?
Sartre’s 1943 original was an update of the Greek myth about Electra and Orestes, a political allegory inspired by the Nazi occupation of France and containing an underlying theme of the philosopher’s existentialist ideas. A core question is to what extent people can be free and self-respecting when living under an evil oppressive dictator. Another key theme – which Exchange picks up particularly – is the use of propaganda in creating a climate of powerlessness and the need for ordinary people to rise up against it.
The stage is set as for an Orwellian thriller, Fascist flags resembling a Big Brother eye, with computers and other technology lying in piles, broken and useless – striking design by Ninon Fandre. Yet TV screens are still able to transmit propaganda and nightmare visions to a population who worship the message and messenger. They are filled with remorse following the murder of their former king Agammemnon, yet did nothing to prevent it and are thus tormented by swarms of flies by the bullying gods as they are constantly fed lies by the new king which only add to their sense of guilt.
What follows is a commendably faithful retelling of Sartre’s version of the Greek tragedy. It is often messy and noisy, with songs that never quite fit, yet with a powerful soundtrack and sound effects by live musicians from the Mauritian grunge rock band A Riot in Heaven.
There’s a terrific performance by Meena Rayann as the sharp revolutionary Electra and it’s always a disappointment in the play itself that she chickens out of rebellion and freedom, preferring the chains of tyrannical conformity. Her engaging portrayal deserves a better ending, but she works well with Samy Elkhatib as the would-be redeemer of his people, Orestes, the only character to discover his true freedom.
David Furlong, the co-founder of Exchange Theatre and who directs here, also plays the invader king Aegisthus, who with his collaborator wife Clytemnestra (Fanny Dulin) keeps the remorse myth alive. He is good as the all too believable villain, standing against liberty and human values by promoting guilt and fear.
Raul Fernandes is devilish as Jupiter, not so much the Roman bringer of jollity but more an immoral, sardonic bully, god of lies, flies and silver-tongued deceit.
In one scene of peculiar eccentricity the furies – the goddesses of remorse – arrive to torment Orestes and Electra, looking like rejects from a Weimar cabaret and behaving like the hyenas in The Lion King. Depending on your point of view this is either toe-curlingly embarrassing or an artistic decision that will take on an idiosyncratic cult status.
The Flies is, frankly, all very heavy-going and one feels that the intention and artistic integrity of Exchange is more to be applauded (hence a third star) than the execution of this particular piece.
But existential angst isn’t everybody’s tasse de théand there will be many who are aroused by the contemporary resonance with fake news, Brexit and imposed decisions by lawmakers while others allow it all to fly au-dessus de leurs têtes.
Runs until July 6, 2019 | Image: Camille Dufrénoy