Let's all play piggy in the middle

The National called it 'uncastable'. But for Elijah Moshinsky, the best thing about doing The Lord of the Flies is that he doesn't have to deal with actors. By Georgina Brown
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The Independent Culture
As a director, Elijah Moshinsky is used to thinking big - steering big opera stars like Pavarotti or Domingo through big numbers by Mozart or Verdi on big stages like La Scala or the Met. Today, however, the scale has changed. In a Stratford rehearsal-room-turned-sandpit, a cuddly toy is masquerading unconvincingly as a boar's bloody corpse, boys are draped in cloaks of all colours raided from the RSC props cupboard. On the sidelines stands Moshinsky, dressed like a PE instructor in navy shorts, a white shirt and Reeboks, urging Stratford schoolchildren to "try and move and speak at the same time".

"I feel like Joyce Grenfell on speed," he giggles. "I keep thinking of that sketch 'Don't do that, George. Do you have to do that?' When I tell anyone what I'm doing they all say, 'Poor you, how awful!' But it couldn't be less awful - it's a seminal book, it's the first time I've worked at the RSC, and I'm not having to direct any actors."

The book is The Lord of the Flies, William Golding's savage fable of moral disintegration (as adapted by Nigel Williams), and the reason why Moshinsky gets everyone's sympathy vote stems partly from a standard thespian reflex to working with children but principally from the well- publicised failure of the National Theatre's own plans to stage the work some years back. That project got as far as casting but, after a read- through, Richard Eyre and three nameless National Theatre associates judged it to be "undirectable and uncastable".

The script met with an equally negative response from many other directors - until Moshinsky read it and was "mad to do it". He was convinced, though, that it should only be performed by untrained child actors and so could not be staged in a conventional auditorium where their fragile voices would be lost. Once again the project looked doomed. Finally the RSC's Adrian Noble got hold of it and instantly judged it perfect for the Other Place, where Moshinsky is now staging it using youngsters from the Stratford area.

"Raw talent" is what Moshinsky wanted and "raw talent" is precisely what he has got: 32 youths aged from 12 to 15, and with all the astonishing variety of shapes, sizes and freckled or pimpled states that those three years encompass.

Admittedly, one of them has done almost every small boy's part going at the RSC over the past five years (and is an exceptionally talented actor), another has had a small role in Warwick, a third has the advantage of being Ben Kingsley's son. The rest are true novices. The lad playing Piggy hasn't so much as walked on in a school play. It means starting from scratch, taking nothing for granted. Concentration as well as lines must be learnt, the Warwickshire burr must be replaced by the clipped Celia Johnson-speak required. School holidays have rarely been such hard work.

"Of course there's a lack of technique and lines get swallowed, and the voices are all 'on the change', " says Moshinsky. "But the boys have a truthfulness and lack of inhibition that is very exciting. You don't often find honest actors - they all have facades and tricks, and you spend rehearsals trying to peel all that off. These boys have no knowledge of stagecraft, so they hit the material straight on without trying to manipulate the audience. It's very refreshing and can be compelling. There's none of the jealousy and insecurity either. And once they know what they're doing, they can tackle the acting later."

Or not, perhaps. Even at today's rehearsal, with three weeks still to go before opening night, there are moments that are quite extraordinarily arresting, when the scene takes hold and the children subconsciously begin to interpret the material for themselves.

"My method?" says Moshinsky. "No method. It's the same as any other cast but I'm more specific about the reading and interpretation of a line." That he is himself the father of two boys (both of whom prefer cricket to theatre) accounts perhaps for his relaxed, unbossy and confident manner. He abandoned his initial touchy-feely approach early on when carefully chosen newsreel of bombings, evacuations and aircrashes merely met 64 glazed eyes and deaf ears. "They can't do it by discussion or playing games or being imaginative. The only way that works is to make the scenes vivid to them in rehearsal and make that the focus. That's why I've had to stage it immediately. What they want is to be told to go there, stand there, think that, do that. They like a firm approach. Children of that age must have order - the book demonstrates that. And if something feels right, they begin to enjoy it; if it's not working, they meander around. It's actually very useful because it indicates if something is good or not."

While Peter Brook's film relied on improvisation, Moshinsky's production will be Williams's text and nothing but. "A film can get away with that because it only needs a series of takes, not a sustained structure." Besides, he thought the film dull. "It was too boring and pretentious for me. I don't want the souls of these boys, I want a performance of the script and the boys' response to it."

At this point in rehearsals, Moshinsky is most concerned with concentration, pace and energy. While he goes through his notes ("The pig is the most expensive prop we'll have - it will be sliceable and all the blood will trickle out"... "The blooding is a real evil game - half game, half real. You should believe that that's the soul of the pig and when you've been blooded, you'll never be the same again"... "That dance was like a half- hearted flamenco number gone wrong. Next time let's try and make it bloodcurdling"), the boys loll impassively on the sand. Some make drawings with their fingers, others sprawl full-length, dreamily letting the grains slip through their fingers.

Despite endless requests to wear playclothes and take their shoes off for rehearsals, many persist in wearing school uniforms and boat-sized trainers. They all say they've read the book but Moshinksy doesn't believe them ("In any case, the book's too difficult"). Otherwise, they appear to be a biddable crew. Indeed, biddable enough to put to use the RSC's generous donation of deodorant and footspray to combat what Moshinsky charmingly refers to as "odeur de hormone".

Such problems are trifles compared to finding a way to create fire, the novel's most potent symbol, in a theatre where naked flame is forbidden. How to kill Piggy is also proving a bit of a teaser (there are no flies from which to roll a boulder). Yet Moshinsky relishes the limitations of the stage. "I'm taking a sort of Shakespearian approach to the island - if you don't have a real lagoon, you can focus on the kids. Like The Tempest, it must be an island full of noises and the soundtrack must provide reliable climaxes when voices and energy levels are so unpredictable." One particularly evocative sound, an echo of Moshinsky's Australian childhood, comes from the "bullroarer", a small school ruler attached to a piece of string which, when whirled around, makes the noise of a didgeridoo, the buzz of swarming flies.

Nigel Williams sits in on rehearsals, cheerfully incorporating such ideas while making little textual cuts here and changes there. He is confident his three-act play "brings the power of the book to the stage". After all, unlike Brook's screenplay, it had Golding's blessing and approval. "Bill told me, 'This is my one book' - an amazingly modest thing to say," recalls Williams. "He was very proud of it. He didn't want it messed about. When he read what I'd done he said, 'I like your play.' That was very generous. You do feel that you are carrying a torch."

Despite the reservations of Richard Eyre et al, the play appears to fly off the page with an artful artlessness. Williams has invented a sort of stylised childspeak and the dialogue has distinctly poetic rhythms, heightening the play's non-naturalistic, metaphorical nature. If meets Heart of Darkness.

"It's important that the play retains the novel's big ideas. It's not just a story about kids," says Williams. "What it has to say about English society, hunting, magic, politics, democracy, survival, boys becoming men, hasn't changed at all." Which is why Williams didn't set the play in any particular time and why the language he coins is a liberal mix of the anachronistic ("old chap") and the contemporary ("superdead").

It seems to work. With each run-through the boys become more aware not simply of what they should be doing, but of what it all means. "They are beginning to realise that it's not kids' stuff," says Moshinsky. "The material is very dark and threatening and it gets nastier and nastier and if they really begin to call it up, we could end up with problems...

"The imaginative world of a play can take people over. I've seen it happen. Every time I've done Three Sisters, the Masha has had an affair." He giggles. "Often with the Vershenin." More giggles. "Chekhov often does that, but I believe this material is as powerful and when it gets demonic later on, it could get really dangerous."

n 'Lord of the Flies' opens 7pm tomorrow at the Other Place, Stratford (01789 295623)