The heart soars and sinks at the same time as you enter the arena for the summer season in Regent’s Park: a British Airways Boeing has crashed, calamitously, onto the stage where Shakespeare was enshrined for 70-odd years and Robert Atkins used to encourage his actors, when in doubt, to go downstage and do a little dance.
Shakespeare may be taking a back seat this season, but William Golding’s tribal allegory of schoolboys creating their own island nightmare as an enforced alternative to hymns in chapel certainly has a Shakespearean dimension, and Nigel Williams’s fine adaptation (first seen at the RSC in 1995) makes a “proper” play.
Suitcases and clothes are everywhere, broken seats and laptops, one wing a ramp, another a platform. The carriage is charred and embedded in the trees; Jon Bausor’s design is an emblematic catastrophe that also creates a perfect setting for the boys’ new parliament and their ritualistic cavorting.
The first RSC version deployed three dozen schoolboys; Timothy Sheader’s tremendous two-hour production has only ten boys, played by teenagers just in or out |of drama school, and one ten-year-old as little Percival, who’s seen the beast in the trees.
That beast of chaos is embraced by James Clay’s charismatic Jack, who leads the painted savages, while Alistair Toovey’s reasonable Ralph argues for rules and good public-school behaviour. Inevitably, the conch that defines the speaker is grappled like a rugby ball, and then smashed in an unseemly scrum.
The play’s a classic development of Williams’s first success, Class Enemy, in which abandoned pupils took over their own class. The striking thing here is the handling of so many hot topics – peer pressure and bullying, gang rivalry, bestiality between children – in an essentially “period” but contemporary-seeming set-up.
Golding’s 1954 fable is less sinister in the theatre than it was in Peter Brook’s great 1963 black-and-white movie. These kids have not gone so far, despite the blood smearing and the murders, that the arrival of a military officer (Ken Christiansen) does not have an instant effect.
George Bukhari’s blubbery Piggy catches the eye, as do James McConville and Stuart Matthews as the emaciated red-haired brothers on a trip that’s gone horribly wrong.
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