Some shows have unusual origins and source material, but few are as ambitious as Stewart Laing and Pamela Carter’s Them! Influenced by the 1954 classic creature feature of the same name, the National Theatre of Scotland has been secretive about how the film has been worked into a show about identity, change, and the future. As many questions as you might have going in (will there be giant ants? Why does the set look like a talk show? Why have I been given earplugs?), you are likely to leave with many, many more.
We learn that there are three stages to the performance; the first being a scripted talk show, hosted by Australian actress Kiruna Stamell. The rules and our expectations are warped with every new guest, and Stamell kicks off by ruthlessly deconstructing the audience/theatre-maker relationship. She concludes that we are optimists; unsure what to expect, yet we come to see what might happen nevertheless. Her performance switches between the dubious sincerity of a flirtatious talk-show host, and impassioned speeches about human nature and identity.
As the topics of discussion around the coffee table drift further away from the source material, the show becomes less grounded. The possible interpretations multiply with every line that is spoken. Metaphors are forged, challenged, and undecided. Even the concept of a metaphor itself is questioned. It may be difficult to keep track, but it is indisputably contemporary. The audience is challenged with new ideas and identities and denied any convenient tropes like heroes, villains, and love interests.
As confusing as the first stage may be, in terms of its components it is flawless. The performances seem as though they’re taken straight out of an episode of The Graham Norton Show from a parallel dimension, and the music is well written and performed. It is executed exactly as intended.
The second stage, however, was unsuccessful. It necessitates a level of mental preparation among the audience that is, regrettably, non-existent. We may be optimists, but we are also observers and not participants. When compared with the first and final stages, it is difficult to see how it fits. It is an optional stage and one that can be skipped if any audience member wishes to do so.
On one hand, it may be a universal meditation on how we navigate our place in the world, on the other, it may be the theatre-makers’ attempting to communicate their own existential demons and challenges with the changing world. To call it relatable would be misleading, to call it alienating would be untrue, and to attempt to summarise it would be a betrayal of its themes. What can be said is that an inquisitive viewer will enjoy getting lost in the many meanings of Them!, but the themes are too broad to be condensed to a single show. If it has any final message, it is that it has no final message. In any case, it will have you thinking about it – and hearing the scuttling of ants- for long after the show has finished.