'X' review or 'Roger that.'

‘X’, Alistair McDowall
Royal Court Theatre, 6th April 2016

I sort of loathe the word ‘zeitgest’ but it’s always there, in the air, when I see a play by Alistair McDowall. It was rumbling violently beneath the crazy, fiery explosion that was ‘Pomona’; a sort of wild energy that spoke of a time filled with clawing confusion, restless movement and a dark emptying out of souls. It was there in ‘Brilliant Adventures’ which, at its most basic level, expressed an urgent need for hope and magic. And now that same zeitgeisty feeling runs though ‘X’, which is set in an abandoned spaceship on Pluto and reflects a generation (arguably a younger generation) that feels lonely, set apart from nature, overwhelmed by technology, concerned for the future of our planet and children and - put very simply – adrift.

That is an awful lot for a play to try to express and Alistair McDowall and director Vicky Featherstone don’t always get it right. I also wasn’t hugely convinced by Merie Hensal’s clunky and overbearing set – a rather neatly battered space ship, with great holes that cut through the walls, floor and ceiling. It looks like the very foundations of the space ship have been roughly shaken (perhaps, shock horror, by the playwright himself!) and feels a bit self-aware and knowing for my taste. It doesn’t take us long to realise that all is not as it seems in Alistair’s McDowall’s profoundly slippery play and a set that seems to permanently wink at us seems a bit unnecessary.

The acting styles are slightly off, too. Again, it’s hard not to compare with McDowall’s last play, ‘Pomona’, in which director Ned Bennet encouraged the actors to rattle up against the edges of the script and push McDowall’s words to the wildest of places. But in ‘X’, the actors seem confused and a little intimidated by the script. Jessica Raine plays the captain – Gilda – and is on an entirely different emotional plain to the other actors. Raine’s Gilda feels the crisis deeply, yet the rest of the crew (for reasons that will become much clearer later on) seem strangely indifferent to their fate. It makes for a deeply muddled and frustrating first half.

In fact, the first half is a proper mess. Whilst captain Gilda is understandably upset – the crew haven’t had communication with earth for 3 weeks now – the rest of the gang are oddly relaxed and wildly unprofessional. Surly Scott Clark (James Harkness) spends most of his time working out on the exercise bike and swearing at his shipmates. He’s spikey and funny but he really doesn’t belong on a space ship. Again, this makes more sense in the second half – when all the space stuff seems much less pressing – but in the first half all this vagueness grates rather than intrigues. It’s hard not to get snagged on the details. Maths geek Cole (Rudi Dharmalinam) is about as scientific as a stick of celery, systems manager Mattie (Ria Zmitrowicz) spends most of her time sulking, Ray (Darrel D’Silva) whiles away the hours blowing on endless bird whistles and Gilda spends her days eating cereal. The whole thing feels neither specific or free and eerie enough. Whilst we suspect this abandoned space ship isn’t the whole story, we’re given barely a whisper of what else might be lurking around the edges of the play until deep into the first act. We spend much of Act One asking – WHY - when we should have been whispering, OOOOHH.

Thankfully, though, things get a hell of a lot looser and weirder and infinitely more engaging in the swirling and heartfelt second act. The play begins to trip itself up and we all stumble, wildly, along with it. Characters start to limp for no reason, necks are sliced open and bodies frozen; death lurks in every corner of that ship and hovers outside the window, filled with a yawning darkness. Everyone starts to go a bit crackers and time – which was already playing strange tricks on us in the first half (a digital clock blinks accusingly) – totally loses its shit. All the normal tools we use to measure and anchor our lives – time, space and human contact – begin to slide away.

Suddenly that set doesn’t seem so solid anymore and those characters – who seemed so real yet slightly forgettable - take on a shadowy shimmer. Are these people who we think they are, or are they figments of Gilda’s imagination? Is Gilda really on this ship or is she somewhere else, which – in her mind – feels equally cut off from all that she holds to be real? First nature is taken away (the play is set in a time when the last tree has long since died), then time is extinguished and, finally, language itself dissolves. Gilda and Clark try to speak to each other and their snatched phrases are eventually reduced to just this: ‘XXXXXXX’. It looks a bit like a text message; like love, like a signing off or the end of something. But it sounds horrible and harsh – like humans with all the human ripped right out of them.

The walls flicker with projections that remind one of computers and of hospitals (is that a heartbeat monitor that flashed up for a second?) These two lonely figures curl up inside the ship’s square black window and continue to bleat away their nothing language (Macbeth had it right when he said of life: ‘It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’) For a second it looks like Gilda and Clark are nestled deep inside a computer and the loneliness of an era dictated by technology burns off the stage. Just how small and trapped have we become? And who is going to take care of the planet and our children, whilst we spend our lives staring at our own reflection?