Re-imagining HG Wells’ lavish literary blockbuster about an alien invasion for the stage is a challenging proposition, so it’s fitting that Rhum & Clay Theatre Company don’t bother. Instead, the group use Orson Welles’ 1938 adaptation of the novel as their jumping-off point to explore important and disturbing questions about misinformation, fiction presented as fact and the very real consequences of fake stories.
Ever the innovator, Welles presented his reworking of the classic tale in the form of a legitimate news broadcast. Even though the piece was preluded with an announcement of its fictional nature by the man himself, those who hadn’t tuned in from the get-go were hoodwinked into believing that the Earth was really under attack. Inspired by this anecdote (which itself is vulnerable to exaggeration), writer Isley Lynn has penned an intricate tale of lies, familial strife and underhand political machinations.
In it, modern-day wannabe podcaster Meena Galway has stumbled across the story of Margaret Graham, her elderly neighbour who was abandoned as a small child when her parents fled the purported invasion and left her behind. Margaret relocated to England and fell out of contact with her family, but an apologetic letter from her brother many years later prompts Meena to visit Grovers Mill, New Jersey, the site of the apparent attack, to pursue the story further.
After tracking down Margaret’s estranged kinfolk, Meena unravels a tale of deception and duplicity that spreads far beyond the abandoned child. Convinced she’s hooked a whopper on her line, Meena goes to extraordinary lengths to reel it in, raising interesting questions about the ethics of reporting, the prevalence and power of fake news and the double standards adopted by both sides of the political divide. There are no easy answers here and Lynn does an excellent job of engaging her audience and inviting debate, without falling down upon either side of it with too much bias.
The choreography, pacing and performances are equally impressive. With just four actors shouldering a huge number of roles, there is the potential for things to become complicated and confusing, but deft stage manipulation and versatile accent work keep all the plates spinning away cheerfully. There are also some delightfully humorous moments that seem almost throwaway in the amount they add to the plot, but are instrumental in lightening the tone and breaking things up.
Amalia Vitale steals the show with her portrayal of Lawson, but Jess Mabel Jones’ Meena remains empathetic despite her deviousness and both Julian Spooner and Matthew Wells are eminently believable in all their roles, whether it be as the shy and retiring Nick, the opinionated but inhibited Jonathan or a couple of domestic dogs sniffing each other’s backsides. With a near 90-minute runtime, the play is one of the longer efforts you’ll see at this year’s Fringe, and those expecting a straight rehash of the source material might come away disappointed. But for anyone with at least a passing interest in current affairs, and with the patience to investigate the topic from an original and intelligent angle, The War of the Worlds offers a reward that more than returns on your investment.