HOME Theatre, Manchester; Wednesday 22nd September, 2021
Sunday, October 30th, 1938. 8pm in the evening. In less than one hour, what had started as a perfectly ordinary night (it always starts out as an ordinary night) ended in the kind of high drama that actual producers of high drama can only dream about.
This was a made-up drama that led to actual, serious real-world drama: listeners to the CBS radio station on America’s east coast were suddenly and shockingly plunged into an extraordinary frenzy of genuine mass hysteria.
People ran away from home, hid in closets, under the duvet; asked to speak to the manager – all manner of uncivilised mayhem was unleashed.
The cause was a then-relatively-unknown troublemaker called Orson Welles. His radio adaptation of HG Wells’ The War Of The Worlds was so realistic and so good that ordinary civilians actually thought that actual aliens were actually invading.
In hindsight, the front-page headlines generated by this uncontrolled emotional excess must surely have been the greatest compliment that the production team could’ve hoped for.
Better than any theatre review.
Fast forward to the 21st century and we now have this new offering from Rhum & Clay Theatre Company – who seem to have thrown a stagey lasso around those real-world events from 1938, added a bit of fictionality, given it a sparkling spank on the backside and then ushered that rampaging beast forth once more onto unsuspecting audiences – this time within the secure confines of a theatre, as opposed to the fertile crucible of misinterpretation that is radio.
Talking of which, someone at HOME Theatre in Manchester has had the ingenuity to put this show in Theatre #1 – renowned as Manchester’s most haunted performance space, scene of many a theatrical killing; everything seems to be lining up just perfectly for a show about aliens and shit.
This isn’t quite that though.
Instead, Rhum & Clay have conjured up something notably different: a proposed philosophical equivalence between the gullibilities of the 1930s and an equivalent phenomenon from the modern-day – specifically the events surrounding Nov 2016 when Donald Trump got himself elected as president on the back of mostly batshit-crazy fake news.
The proposition ~kind of makes sense: people believe what they want to believe; they agree with what they want to agree with; we are all easily led away from truth and rationality.
So here Welles and Trump get hog-tied in such a way that Rhum & Clay’s The War Of The Worlds isn’t a staging of the original, 1898 HG Wells novel; nor is it even a staging of the Orson Welles 1938 radio adaptation. Instead, it’s a new, fictional story built on top of what happened in 1938.
The lusty invasion fantasy of HG Wells lies two storylines detached from what we’re seeing on stage. It all feels a little strange, especially so if you turned up at the theatre expecting to see aliens and shit.
It’s not bad in any way, just a bit weird in construction, and certainly a little difficult to follow given that four actors on stage each perform multiple roles with rapid and indistinct transitions.
Also not helping is the fact that, in some parts, it feels as if it’s been padded out by over-enthusiastic writing. There are some fairly large and conspicuous chunks that could have been cut away to leave something far more precise in terms of getting to the point of it all.
It’s interesting to note that the early reviews of this show from 2019 talk of an 80-minute-long performance – here the elapsed time was getting close to double that when including the (structurally unnecessary and bit-too-obviously-engineered) interval.
But hold on. This isn’t a bad show, far from it. On stage is a whole world of arty excellence: there is top-notch physical movement, staging, lighting, audio – every tangible aspect of this production is well groomed: this is a luxurious, purring panther of a production, theatre perverts will be tripping over their tongues for the chance to rub up against its sculpted muscularity.
But this staged concept might have gone full circle in a very weird way. It’s true that people will believe what they want to believe as Rhum & Clay are proposing, I just came in believing in the power of aliens and shit.
It’s not a problem that none were forthcoming, but isn’t the whole of theatre about people believing what they want to believe, feeling what they want to feel, thirstily lapping up the hysteria on stage, whatever that might be?
It’s not bad, not bad at all. I wanted to be invaded, to be dominated, to feel the dark aura of Uranus, etc. Some of that certainly did happen, but overall it feels more like a little tickle from some passing intergalactic bandits rather than a full-scale invasion by the masters of the universe.
Photography: Luke Forsythe; Jamie Macmillan