By William Golding
Adapted for the stage by Nigel Williams
Directed by Colin McColl
Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | September 5-28
I have to confess that I know of Lord of the Flies only as a cultural touchstone. I never read it in high school, which is when many people (especially men) encounter it, and I’ve never had the desire to read it since. A bunch of high school boys trapped on an island held little interest for me, but when this production was announced in the ATC programme almost a year ago, my interest was piqued. It seemed like a conservative choice, but one that could be interpreted in a brave and interesting way. All these months later, some of my suspicions were confirmed, and I was very surprised by other aspects of the production.
There’s really no need to summarise the plot of Lord of the Flies, but this production throws a wrench into even that. We open on a modern English class with your usual suspects: bully, teacher’s pet, class clown, and the bullied, who are actually studying the novel in their class. After this introduction, a little bit perfunctory but worth it for what comes directly after, we’re thrown into the text itself and the rest of the play unfolds like I assume the book does.
A little digging tells me that the original script has been cut from two acts to one, which is an effective choice but not one without its downfalls. On the one hand, we are stuck on the island with these boys watching their degradation from the rules of society into savagery and madness for an unbroken 90 minutes, but on the other the degradation comes very quickly and even as somebody who isn’t familiar with the story, it feels like we’re ticking off events rather than allowing them to breathe. It’s a choice that likely came with difficulty, and I imagine a performance of the whole script might come off with some different flaws entirely.
The script itself is also a flawed beast. The dialogue is almost distractingly on-the-nose at times, and at other times it is strangely florid. But for the most part, the script, and indeed, the entire production caught me off-guard and kept me there for an entire duration. The audience is really stuck in this world, and where the script falters, the cast and design more than make up for it.
I can’t imagine Lord of the Flies working without the ensemble that ATC have assembled. With a core cast of 11 actors, not including a choir of younger boys, there’s a huge amount of people onstage and each actor makes an impression despite this. As the diplomatic, intelligent Ralph, Leon Wadham is a clear highlight. He draws the eye without stealing focus and lends Ralph a believable gravitas that he makes heartbreaking when that gravitas fades and he’s left with nothing but his own sense of morals. Wadham is a wise choice for the centre of the show;when everything else descends into chaos there’s a clear presence onstage to cling to, and he really shines in this role.
Anton Tennet is another highlight as the out-of-sorts Simon. Earlier on he grabs attention with only a few witty lines, but later he has a standout scene as he sees the beast that the boys are all afraid of. He makes the terror in this scene, and then the realisation of what the beast actually is, truly palpable and it’s breathtaking to watch. Jordan Mooney and Nathan Mudge as the violent Jack and Roger are also entertaining, especially Mooney in an eleventh hour shift that casts the rest of the play in a distressing, bleak, light.
The only member of the cast I have mixed feelings about is Zane Fleming’s Piggy. As I understand it, the audience is meant to sympathise and find a surrogate in the bullied but intelligent Piggy, but in Fleming’s portrayal I found nothing to sympathise. His energy exists in another realm from the other actors and it’s jarring to watch at points in the play, and at other points there’s just an uncomfortable balance between him and the other actors onstage. When the inevitable happens to Piggy, I found myself not as taken or upset as I could be, especially in contrast to an earlier death in the play.
However, on the whole, the cast is strong one, and even the younger kids impress, especially Harry Stanbridge and Flynn Melhopt as the twins (though these roles are double-cast and they alternate with Mitchell Hageman and Murdoch Keane respectively). There are moments, especially towards the end, where they all gel and it’s a treat to watch this amount of actors onstage, clearly relishing their roles and the play they’re in.
Even beyond the cast, the design is what steals the show away. Tracey Collins’s set is the best I’ve seen for an ATC show in some time, and the shift from the first set to the second is an early highlight, and provides the most striking and enduring image: a world tilted completely, possibly irrevocably, out of place. The justification for putting the play on seems to be in this set, and I’m honestly okay with that. It’s a gorgeous, inventive, and challenging set. What’s more, there’s bracing lighting design courtesy of Phillip Dexter and a gorgeous, disturbing soundscape and score from Eden Mulholland. This is not just a production where the design supports the play; it’s practically the star of the show.
Lord of the Flies is a more than decent production. As an educational tool, it’s without flaw. I felt like I had studied it for a term in an English class after spending time in this world, which I think is the most revealing giveaway from the play. As accomplished as the cast and design are, this is ultimately a production of a story that people are familiar with and want to see produced. There’s a few challenges to the story, but this is Lord of the Flies as you expect it, and there’s a whole lot worse a theatre company can do than put on an adaptation of a much-loved, still-relevant text. Come for what you studied in school, and stay for a compelling cast and genius design.