“War of the Worlds”: Rhum and Bay

Jeremy Malies at the Brighton Festival.

Rhum and Clay Theatre Company have adapted Orson Welles’s 1938 The War of the Worlds so that it goes beyond the original radio programme and resulting pandemonium to include a discussion of fake news and our gullibility in consuming it. By doing so, they hitch a somewhat disrespectful ride on the Mercury Theatre on the Air project – and the 1897 H.G. Wells novel which is also used as a source. There is no concern for the intentions of the men who produced the material, but it’s all done with such verve, fine acting, and breadth of historical perspective that the creators – irreverent themselves and ironically self-detached – would probably find it a hoot.

Brighton Festival organizers (who are co-producers with HOME Manchester) have decided to branch out, and this play was performed along the coast at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing where audience numbers were as high as pandemic restrictions would allow. The storyline hinges on Meena, an obnoxious metropolitan-elite aspiring podcaster played with skill and resourcefulness by Jess Mabel-Jones. Meena has befriended Margaret, an elderly woman in London who as a child was left on her own for many hours while her hick parents and siblings rushed to the supposed site of the Martian landing in rural New Jersey during the broadcast. Willing to do anything for her story, Meena travels to the site and interviews Margaret’s descendants, finally posing as Margaret’s granddaughter.

 

Photo credit: Richard Davenport.

 

Initially we are in the Mercury radio studio. It’s an exquisite detail that in the opening scene all four actors smoke pipes to show that they are aspects of the polymath that was Orson, with the women inhabiting him as effectively as the men. Mabel-Jones excels technically here as she does throughout. There is not a weak link, and the entire cast are comfortable with British Received Pronunciation, its class-neutral American equivalent General Pronunciation, and finally turnip-truck Philadelphia vowels.

At the broadest level, the piece is a critique of lowbrow radio journalism: part of the interest lies in seeing to what depths the vile Meena will sink in her search for a story with her unprincipled commissioning editor pushing her further and further. And here’s the kicker. Jonathan (Julian Spooner), the young hilly-billy relative of the unseen Margaret figures out Meena immediately, is aware that she’s recording him secretly, and from his bedroom he is (with an instinct for news that Meena lacks) pumping out Trumpean right-wing fake material from sophisticated websites of his own creation with his alternative truth being swallowed whole by a large audience including his own father who regards him as an idiot.

 

Photo credit: Richard Davenport.

 

The tone is one of playfulness and whimsy including Brechtian alienation elements that extend far beyond the fact that we are in a radio studio, with the theatre’s actual sound engineer being visible centre upstage as she executes a judicious sound design by Ben Grant. The piece was written by Isley Lynn in a devised process with cast members. A fan of her work, I sense her vivacity as one of the actors comes right out of the narrative to note that in addition to the radio project, Wells’s groundbreaking sci-fi novel has also inspired Jeff Wayne’s eponymous 1970s rock opera.

Welles asked us to ponder the distinctions between fact and fiction in his Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast, but he never intended to deceive. (It should be remembered that there was genuine panic and a few injuries when listeners believed Martians really had landed in New Jersey.) Rhum and Clay mention this and stress that none of the upheaval would have occurred had more listeners noted initial disclaimers in the script, but most of them tuned in a little late after the star turn on another channel, a ventriloquist performing on the radio! The War of the Worlds will tour internationally next year and deserves bigger audiences in a post-social distancing climate.