Lord Of The Flies seems to have been with us forever, from its ancient religious context to the idiom that transcends William Golding’s Nobel Prize-winning 1954 novel. And yet its stage incarnation, as adapted by British author and playwright Nigel Williams, is not much more than two decades old.
Williams’ script is faithful and free-flowing, but hardly makes a case to be consumed as an alternative to the much-loved book. It is too plodding in parts, particularly if you know what’s coming. After debuting at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1996, it’s been rarely performed — at least outside the UK — since.
And so the choice by artistic director Kip Williams to put it on the Sydney Theatre Company calendar in 2019 is a bold one. And in directing the piece he’s made many more bold decisions along the way. It’s hard to fault any of them.
Williams saw a text not simply about privilege and power and its corrupting forces, not only about authoritarianism in a political age of authoritarianism, but of the powerful peddling of fear to divide and conquer the populous. These prepubescents deserted by a plane crash on a Pacific island are Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians”, and Donald Trump’s “deplorables”, and the Brexiteers of the United Kingdom, the underclass so desperate for a way out they’ll follow anyone who bothers to charm them.
As for the toxicity of masculine tropes, which Golding’s work is perhaps most concerned with, Williams sharpens these points with diverse, gender-blind casting. That the island’s rival leaders – Ralph (Mia Wasikowska) and Jack (Contessa Treffone) – are both played by women powerfully demonstrate the cultural, innate, performative nature of masculinity.
It demonstrates, too, the institutionalisation of the masculine; a stage of not just boys but girls, women, transgender people, bodies of different colour and mobility, all as susceptible to debasement as each other. It unleashes the power of truly diverse representation in storytelling across borders and generations.
Unlike his last production for the company, a rather limp and lost Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Williams has created the perfect playground for his performers in the Roslyn Packer Theatre. It’s a space grand and intimate, natural and allegorical, simple and spectacular in ways that aren’t merely for show (see Cat) but drive story and ratchet up the dramatic tension.
It’s a space grand and intimate, natural and allegorical, simple and spectacular in ways that aren’t merely for show … but drive story and ratchet up the dramatic tension.
Much of the credit goes to his world-beating design team, particularly Elizabeth Gadsby (sets), Alexander Berlage (lighting) and James Brown (composer and sound designer). Audiences enter to the performers prowling a naked rehearsal stage under harsh fluorescent light. Backstage equipment is wheeled in as props and places. Scaffolding stands in for the island’s mysterious mountain. But then those fluorescent lights fall from the sky, the soundtrack pulsates, and the mood changes in an instant, again and again. It’s the sort of stagecraft that wins awards.
As an ensemble of not particularly experienced performers, Williams had them really well-drilled on opening night. Nobody skipped a beat. Some really stood out.
Wasikowska is a natural, in her first major stage role after a meteoric Hollywood career, channelling boyhood with total conviction while balancing Ralph’s competing desires to lead and do right. Treffone’s Jack is ferocious from the get-go, perhaps in need of some modulation, but certainly dastardly dictatorial in the key moments.
Terrifying, too, is Daniel Monks as the malleable, increasingly monstrous Roger. Rahel Romahn is a perfect Piggy, the bullied voice of reason. Joseph Althouse is great as quiet, sympathetic Simon.
Turns out, Lord Of The Flies is exactly the story we need right now. And I wouldn’t have said that before seeing Williams’ smart, scintillating restoration.
Lord Of The Flies plays the Roslyn Packer Theatre until August 24.
Feature image: Zan Wimberley