'Nuclear War' review or 'Who's going to push my buttons now?'

Nuclear War, Simon Stephens
Royal Court Theatre, 24th April 2017 

We’re stuck inside a small and eerie bunker. The lights flicker and threaten. There’s a soft pulsing somewhere in the background, which will later build into a battering ram of sound. There are no exits and one woman – along with a chorus dressed in black and a wary audience – is trapped inside. It feels like this woman has been in here for a very long time. It feels like she has stopped looking for a way out. But today is different. Today this woman is going to try to escape the grief that has suffocated her for seven years, since she lost someone in the ‘bleep, bleep, bleeps’ of a hospital. Today this woman is going to try to leave her home, walk the streets and live in the moment.  

Simon Stephens’ latest play – teasingly titled ‘Nuclear War’ - is a collaboration with choreographer Imogen Knight (and designer Chloe Lamford, lighting whizz Lee Curran and composer Elizabeth Bernholz) and is about the desolate devastation that grief creates. It is about how the landscape is flattened and ‘reality’ obliterated when loss and sadness consume us.

Very little happens. This isn’t a play proper (whatever that might be) – but an emotional sketch; a sad scrabble about the inner-workings of a broken mind. There’s a hint of Chris Goode’s ‘Men in the Cities’: the same burning feeling of loss; the indifferent coolness of the city streets and the people who walk them; the chaos and isolation created by all those roads, paths and connections that promise to lead somewhere but end in nothing; the cruelty and potential kindness of strangers.

But with ‘Men in the Cities’ we had Goode’s dense and sprawling poetry to hold us by the hand (and claw at our hearts). Here we have very little – some sparse observations and fears expressed by Maureen Beattie’s lost and broken woman (often delivered as a voiceover), some whispered threats from the thronging chorus and movement segments and increasingly chaotic music that rumbles, builds and frightens.

Some of the scenes don’t quite come off. Stephens and choreographer Knight are trying to push at the edges of theatre, and create a show that merges dance, text and music in genuinely daring ways. Yet – oddly – ‘Nuclear War’ often feels a little naive. The chorus whispers threats or fears and they somehow end up sounding just a little bit silly. Quite a few of the dance sections, which are woven around and through our central woman, seem like starting points for ideas that haven’t yet grown in something properly interesting or new. ‘Nuclear War’ is such a pared down play – only 45 minutes long – and occasionally the dance and movement oversimplify things (bricks literally weigh this woman down in one scene), rather than really deepening the central ideas about grief and loss.

But there are some thrilling body blows in here. In one scene, Elizabeth Bernholz’s music (fearless) builds to such a volume that the walls begin to shake. We lean back against the wall and feel the music in our bodies. In the centre of Lamford’s blank-slate set, the dancers stand with nylon pulled tight over their faces. As our grief-struck woman looks on, the music hammers at our bodies and the dancers thrust about wildly, forcing oranges into their closed mouths, juice dripping down their suffocated faces. The awful isolation of grief invades us; the paranoia, the confusion, and the horrible certainly that life, in all its angry vitality, continues to burn up somewhere beyond our reach.