Writer: Isley Lynn, devised by the company
Directors: Hamish MacDougall and Julian Spooner
The 1938 Mercury Theatre radio adaptation of H G Wells’s The War of The Worlds is the stuff of legend. Visionary director Orson Welles staged the broadcast as if the invasion was actually happening- listeners heard a dance band concert being regularly interrupted by phony news bulletins detailing horrific events. There were widespread reports of panicking listeners who missed the introduction or were just gullible and believed the earth had been invaded by Martians.
The stage adaptation of the broadcast and events, conceived by Rhum and Clay Theatre Company and written by Isley Lynn, contrasts Welles’s innovation and artistic triumph with the sinister use which has subsequently been made of his techniques of media manipulation. In the run-up to the 2016 election in the USA a podcast reporter investigates rumours of a family which was so terrified by the Welles broadcast, they abandoned their teenage daughter and ran for safety. However, the reporter unexpectedly confronts a decent family whose extreme political views have been shaped by online reports which are demonstrably fake.
Rhum and Clay Theatre Company are known for their physical productions, so their exploration of a highly verbal event is something of a surprise. Directors Hamish MacDougall and Julian Spooner skilfully merge the verbal with the physical; using movement and speech to recreate moments from the broadcast, the public response at the time and modern-day recollections of events. The paranoia of the listening public is reflected in sinister changes of lighting and dry ice flooding the stage. Families are shown crouching around radios desperately waiting to hear the worse.
All four members of the cast adopt the persona of Orson Welles, not just his honeyed vocals but the pipe-smoking avuncular, charming physical movements as he chats with the audience under the pretence of apologising for, while obviously rejoicing in, his prank.
A loss of innocence hangs over the production. Welles, with his sorry-not-sorry apology, is portrayed as a naughty schoolboy who went a bit too far. He cheerfully offers to pay the costs incurred by people who over-reacted. A case is illustrated of a listener who took to the hills in fear but who, upon realising his mistake, takes his error in good grace. There is a sense of embarrassment; as if all involved got a bit carried away but no harm was done.
By contrast, in the present day, an underachiever in his bedroom publishes sensational articles online which he knows to be untrue and, when confronted, is unrepentant and has no concern for the consequences. The reporter who began pursuing a harmless human-interest story becomes corrupted and, in order to advance her career, allows her sources to be exploited. Techniques that were intended to be used for entertainment have become ‘weaponised’ and potentially harmful.
There is potential for the play to be depressing. It suggests imaginative techniques developed for artistic reasons have been debased and are now used for shallow manipulative purposes. Yet the play is staged in a lively manner that holds the attention and is by no means without hope. Author Isley Lynn includes a closing sequence showing people with little in common still being able to make a connection when communicating directly.
The War of The Worlds is both a celebration of an artistic triumph and a cautionary tale on the misuse of modern media. It is staged and performed in such an engaging manner that points are made while is the audience is caught up in a captivating production. It is a genuine, not fake, artistic achievement.
Runs until 2 October 2021