Following the disappointing but certainly headline-grabbing The Assassination of Katie Hopkins earlier this year, anybody could be forgiven for thinking an all-female Lord of the Flies was Theatr Clwyd once again being too smart-by-far when flashing a bit of flesh to the London reviewers. We shouldn’t be cynical about these things, a theatre in north Wales being part of the “national discussion” (meaning what they’re talking about in London) is no small thing, and equally is quite a feat to pull off. That they managed it with K@*%! H*@$&^% was something, but that they have continued it with a relatively straight forward production in Home, I’m Darling, and now Lord of the Flies suggests a wiliness that perhaps other theatres in Wales and the English regions could learn from. Perhaps, with this kind of noble balance between the business impetus and creative mind, Wales will soon be having to fight to keep Theatre Clwyd’s Artistic Director Tamara Harvey in post. (Rachel O’Riordan, whose Sherman Theatre has co-produced this show, is already off to the Lyric in February, cashing in on the award-winning successes she has had in Cardiff at exactly the right time for her career, but maybe not for Wales).
Harvey’s continuing display of top level creative decision-making comes at a delicate time, a time when 40 writers signed an open letter (published in Wales Arts Review last week) asking for a change of direction for National Theatre Wales. Currently, Arts Council Wales money going to NTW is subsidising audience members to the tune of around £5000 a head, and it is unimaginable that Harvey or O’Riordan would be afforded such luxuries with their grants from the public purse. Theatr Clwyd and Sherman Theatre have to make bold business decisions, and the trick is to have them wind seamlessly through the creative ones. And so Lord of the Flies attracts the curiosity of London reviewers with its all female cast (and I even reviewed the show for BBC Radio Four’s Front Row last week), but at no point in the creative outcome of that decision, does the casting seem gimmicky. Director Emma Jordan, in the end, has delivered an apposite parabolic drama, but played out with new voices right for the time, and one that feels entirely authentic.
Nigel William’s adaptation, although having a shaky start (the opening five minutes is underwritten – or maybe overwritten, it was difficult to tell), quickly gives Jordan all the necessary ammunition for a fast-paced quasi-horror story of William Golding’s timeless classic novel. Jordan directs with an understated confidence. The all-female casting of this famously all-boys story could have encouraged her to dress Ralph in a Theresa May wig (yes, the characters retain their boy-names), or give some signposts that Jack escapes the island for a successful Teflon-sprayed career as Mayor of London/Foreign Secretary/Prime Minister-of-the-Apocalypse. But Jordan resists, she lets the story do the work, and it is all the better for it.
Reviewers travelling up to Mold hoping for a show that ladled on the metaphors, that camped up the allegories, that drove in the daggers with a Hogarthian swagger, are in fact met with a respectful adaptation that, above all else, displays an utmost faith in the source material to deliver the goods. For an entire creative team to remove ego from the creative process, and allow Golding to be the star, is no small achievement.
That said, the ensemble cast maintain a good energy and manage to not be overwhelmed by the primordial power of Golding’s ideas. Kate Lamb’s increasingly fragile Jack is a particular highlight. James Perkins’ craggy set design allows for a great deal of that energy to feel dangerous, even when the movement of the actors feels slightly timid. There are moments when it all feels a little too close to a sixth-form production, such as the lacklustre and underdone stage fights, but this is a cast that knows what lies at the heart of this play, and Piggy’s Tosca-style ending is genuinely moving for the kaleidoscopic range of different fears it inspires in the rest of the castaways.
Ultimately, does this Lord of the Flies need to have an all female cast? I think it’s much more important to ask why anybody needs to ask that question in the first place. An all female cast, at the basest level, is quite simply putting classic stories into the mouths of different people. Jordan and Harvey have decided that alone is enough to justify this production. If you want satire, allegory, metaphor, then Golding is well-equipped to do the rest.
Lord of the Flies is on at Theatr Clwyd in Mold until October 13th and then the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff from Cot 17th to November 3rd.