The lighting is stunning, a fabulous demonstration of what can be achieved with a fleet of computer-controlled lighting bars. Director Kip Williams’s commitment to diverse casting is industry best practice.
And yet this Lord of the Flies – the third production of the play he’s mounted – falls short of revelatory. This Sydney Theatre Company production upends traditional notions of what the story should look and sound like (which Peter Brooks’ film set in aspic at the height of the Cold War), but in other respects William Golding’s depiction of feral youth seems dated.
British writer Nigel Williams’s stage adaptation, written in the early 1990s, is the only one permitted by the Golding estate. It’s a worthy and faithful one. But watching it – and watching young people in the audience watching it – it seems to me that even when recharged by inclusive thinking, high technology and the lighting of distress flares, Lord of the Flies doesn’t really cut it in the Fortnite era.
Written during the aftermath of World War II and set against a background of some possibly apocalyptic new conflict, Golding’s story begins with a party of schoolboys marooned on an uninhabited tropical island after the plane carrying them to safety … doesn’t.
The survivors split into two camps. One is first aligned with the fundamentally decent Ralph (played here by Mia Wasikowska). The second, a group of church school choristers, fall into line behind a charismatic firebrand, Jack (Contessa Treffone).
While Ralph suggests everyone stick to the beach, build a shelter and light a beacon to attract a rescuer, Jack insists the children arm themselves against an unseen “beast” and head into the forest for a bloodlust bender.
What chance commonsense and a hopeful flame against sharpened sticks and the promise of slaughter?
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Production designer Elizabeth Gadsby strips the stage to the back wall. Wheeled road cases and a scaffold tower stand for pretty much everything. It doesn’t look like much at all until Alexander Berlage’s lighting comes into play: glowing tubes that can be arranged into arrays and shapes that describe the physical and emotional landscape of the story.
Dressed in street clothes (costumer designer Marg Horwell erases the book’s class distinctions) all in the 11-strong cast perform capably. Some performances do stand out, however. At first, Wasikowska’s Ralph displays the kind of clean-cut earnestness you associate with Enid Blyton. There’s a touch of panto prince élan, too, which is convincingly knocked out of him as events unfold.
Romahn brings some needed heart to the piece as the asthmatic, vision-impaired Piggy. Joseph Althouse makes a memorable STC debut as Simon, the boy mistaken for the island’s mysterious “beast”. Treffone’s furious Jack is played in the same key throughout.
Elsewhere, twenty-something actors playing children yields familiar semaphorics and shouting. Sydney Theatre Company has requested reviewers not reveal the show’s ending and I’ll honour that. That it’s no more satisfying that Golding’s patriarchal deus ex machina is about all I can say.