In 1938, The Mercury Theatre on the Air theatre company created radio history with a performance of an adaptation of H. G. Wells 1898 novel about a Martian attack on the planet Earth. The effect of the broadcast was profound and has entered the history books creating a story of its own. Fast forward to 2019 and Rhum & Clay have taken the original radio production as their base for a new version of The War of the Worlds at the New Diorama Theatre.
This 80-minute play, devised by the company writing with Isley Lynn, starts with the infamous broadcast and the wonderful opening monologue from Orson Wells (Mona Goodwin, Julian Spooner, Amalia Vitale and Matthew Wells) themselves. I have to say, speaking as someone that has a copy of the original broadcast, the cast have done extremely well to recreate the sound and feel of 1938 as they go through the start of the Mercury Theatre production. The play is not just a recreation of the original but moves forward to exam the effects on the small town of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey by an online blogger who has heard of the hysteria the original broadcast whipped up through an emotional letter found after the death of a friend’s mother. This leads her into the strange world of internet nerds and the whole fake news phenomenon.
The War of the Worlds was probably one of the first real examples of fake news – though something similar had been done by the BBC in the 1920s – and it is easy to sit and look back to those days thinking people were really stupid to get fooled by a radio play. And yet, fake news is even more prevalent today than it has ever been. It takes a few minutes to set up a story on a website, and by using the right headline, it is guaranteed to draw people into it. They then share on social media and suddenly this made up story is being accepted as fact by otherwise sensible members of the public.
This production is nicely put together and directors Hamish MacDougall & Julian Spooner make full use of the stage to move the four actors around and take the audience in an eighty-one year journey from the CBS studios to Grover’s Mill today. The pace is pretty fast and there is a lot of humour in the production which makes clever use of Benjamin Grant’s sound design to add to recreate the atmosphere – especially of the original broadcast – and move the audience through the various phases of the story. All four actors have multiple roles and work amazingly well as a team to bring the various characters to life.
All in all, I found The War of the Worlds both enjoyable and thought-provoking. I’ve often clicked on a headline that screamed out about some exciting and highly improbable story. I consider myself fairly savvy about fake news and I have always believed the stories of mass hysteria and suicides when the play was originally broadcast, but it turns out that may not be as true as I thought and if a simple thing like that turns out to be false then what does that mean for everything else that is presented as news?
Review by Terry Eastham
“No one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space….”
But we did believe. We believed that Martians landed in New Jersey. We believed a water tower was an alien war machine. We believed a man walked on the moon. We believe everything the trolls tell us…
Inspired by Orson Welles’ classic radio play – 80 years almost to the day since the original broadcast was apocryphally reported to have caused widespread panic after being mistaken for true events – this legendary totem of science fiction is reimagined for our era of Fake News and ‘alternative facts’; where widespread panic and mistrust and make the truth an ever-harder concept to identify.
Rhum and Clay have become renowned for the visceral physicality of their productions as well as their ability to create beautiful, visually textured on-stage worlds. In War of the Worlds they have created layer upon layer of story, weaving in and out of different time frames and narratives as if moving the dial on a radio: atmospheric, exciting and disorienting.
The War of the Worlds
By Rhum and Clay with Isley Lynn
8 January – 9 February
Tues – Sats @ 19:30
Sat Matinee @ 15:00
New Diorama Theatre
15-16 Triton St,
London, NW1 3BF