[Review:] NUCLEAR FUTURE, Camden People’s Theatre, London.
There is something so off-putting, so darkly atmospheric, ominous and fearful about this play. Within it, there is so much emotion, yet everything is tackled with such sterility and distance. Relationships are not demonstrated but explained; movement is minimal and implied; space (more on this later) is not depicted but inferred; even the recurring item of nuclear energy is the subject of a lecture, a theme, even, and not an item or object itself. Oddly, nothing really exists in this performance at all, the only prop being a toothbrush, a mundane and banal object of lackadaisical self-care. Yet, we are still extremely aware of a wider world, one that we only catch glimpses of through text messages, slammed doors, phone calls and passing traffic.
Nuclear Future feels macrocosmic; it feels that there is so much going on that its only direct character, Astrid (Leda Douglas), and we ourselves have stepped back from the world and have desensitised ourselves to its traumas. It feels as though we have entered a future of chaos and danger and long for the peace and stability of the past, and so we hide ourselves from the pain. The darkness of the space, its claustrophobia, makes for a feeling of the ever-narrowing, ever-scaring, right up until it swallows Astrid whole, rather literally, in its final moments.
So, what creates this feeling of doom and apathy? There are two main features of this performance that characterise its entirety: lack of physical movement and dynamic video design (Joshua Pharo). Tech, representing the outer world, seems to race past Astrid and leave her behind, dazzled, still. What is generated is a profound consciousness of a prolonged, nay perpetual, stasis. Within this stasis sits omen and dread. I think the play does a remarkable job in balancing the extreme, fast-paced motion of the videos with the stillness and fragility of Astrid. There are still, however, tiny issues I have with it.
I shall start by addressing this former feature, the lack of physical movement. This particular feature was very, very well conceived. Continuously giving so very little, both through action and through text, this play leaves room for so much intrigue but also for gaps in the plot. We, the audience, must fill these gaps in, and there are many to fill, making this play so complex and positively difficult. At some points, it is not an easy performance to spectate, given its deliberate stagnancy (more on this later), but, for the most part, this makes for a much tenser experience and harshens the denouement of the play.
Douglas localises her emotions to her face, making very minimal gestures with her head and torso. Combined with her lines, this makes for a very narrow kinetosphere and causes us to feel that Astrid is suffocated by her environment and by external happenings, making for a peculiar and unique view of her psychology and character. It also forces us to imagine what she is seeing, her eyes being the principal tool for animation and expression. All in all, a very powerful technique of storytelling and characterisation.
However, Douglas does have some trouble sometimes reining herself back in, in that she both stretches her emotional expressivity just a little too far but also finds it difficult to snap into a different emotion afterwards right away, the former emotional state seeming to linger (her body still shaking a little, her eyes still watering). She is clearly good at portraying extreme emotion, yet a realistic representation of this has little place in this performance, I believe. When her character fears that her daughter has been involved in an accident and has died, for example, Douglas physicalises her distress in her entire body, moving her arms up and down her thighs, her legs shaking slightly, her head, shoulders and torso moving. This could have been a directorial decision, but whoever decided upon moments like these should be aware that this makes for an incongruous and, actually, rather melodramatic presentation. This play makes harsh and limiting decisions for itself, laying out clear and visible rules for movement. Being so restrictive in every other moment in this play means that physicalities like these seem exaggerative, despite actually being what would be considered subtle in other contexts. To limit all of this emotion to the head and the face, in my opinion, would have made for more consistency and heightened pathos.
Unique to this performance is its articulate, imaginative and awe-inspiring use of projections. A small and tight performance space is utterly and wildly expanded by the visuals we are provided. Or, when required, the space is even tighter, claustrophobic and insular. Something particularly notable about these visuals is that the projected image, when implying location, is blurry and indistinct. This provides spectators with the perfect equilibrium of stimulus and imagination. We are given the illusion of trees, of lights from passing traffic, of window frames and baby mobiles, just the right amount to cause the mind to finalise the picture. For a performance that is otherwise rather fragmented and stagnant, this use of mindscaping is vital.
I would just be aware, as a quick note here, of what certain images seem to allude to. For example, the final image where Astrid becomes engulfed by an upright, yellow rectangle, a white spotlight tightening around her head. This image has particularly religious connotations, as though the box-light is a stained glass window, and the spotlight, a halo. I would be aware of both how this might be received but also what this unavoidably suggestive image communicates about Astrid’s character.
The scenes in which Astrid lectures on the science, use and impact of nuclear energy and power are just as dynamic. Not only do the images presented add comedy and quirk in their animations, but they also carry a deep significance, given that nuclear energy is, in fact, usable still in the real world beyond the play and has been used. This cheery yet informative elucidation of the science behind nuclear energy and power, despite its rudimentariness, is an excellent, insidious way of connecting loose threads about Astrid’s character, of exposing her sins and corruptive reality.
There are many very good ways in which this dramatic text reveals characters and events. One literary device used is cyclicality. This primarily involves these lecture scenes, when they start to repeat themselves, only this time Astrid has weakened. She is falling apart, unable to concentrate or articulate herself. This is one, rather literal, way in which the theme of degradation is expressed, yet there is a more longevous and progressive tool for exposing this and that is the portrayal of Astrid’s relationship with her daughter. Astrid is consistently terrified by her daughter’s mortality — darkly ironic and shocking when we discover that these lectures are, in fact, part of her heartless profession… — and this gives us a persistent sense of fear and moribundity that is reinforced when Astrid’s daughter finally decides to leave her. We feel that Astrid is set up to fail, her very name meaning ‘godly strength’ of which she clearly has none. This is a very good place to put our narrator in. If she fears her world, is unsure of it, and is our only way into the world, to perceiving it. the audience has no other choice but to fear the world, too.
One other main feature I have alluded to elsewhere is the deliberate vagueness of the script. This is partly due to slow revelations but also due to there being only one direct character. As said above, we perceive the world through the eyes and thoughts of Astrid, and so our understanding of her world is very premature and irrational. Characters like Opi have strong presences within the text, yet it is never extensively clarified who this individual actually is; we are told that Astrid’s father is feeding her daughter truths that should “come from her, not him”, that he is planting seeds in her head, yet we are never told what these seeds and truths are; we can only infer both of these. This makes for an incredibly intriguing and insidious piece of work.
The only real issue I have with this play is its length, particularly in scenes where Astrid is conversing with her father either via Skype or via telephone. This performance loses a couple of marks, for me, for this. With such stillness and stasis, it is important to feel at all times like there is some sort of movement, and whilst I understand that the length of this conversations is to add realism, which it most certainly did — a most successful capture of real-life speech — I would just consider how much is absolutely necessary to progress the plot and how much is simply filler, to create a mere sense of naturalism.