A plastic banner stretched across a dingy doorway signifies I have arrived at Found 111. Aside from the banner, the site looks like an abandoned premises; somewhere you would half expect asbestos or infestation…ironic given the title of the play I’m here to see. As I make my way inside and climb the stairs, I come across a sign ‘Almost There’ painted on the wall, which if I wasn’t familiar with the site-specific scene, would answer the question any confused traditional theatre goer might have… ‘Am I in the right place?!’ It is pleasing to see the the main site of Central St Martins School of Art maintaining its history as a place of creativity.
Finally reaching the top of the stairs, I entered what is described as a ‘Roadhouse’ bar which, with a little artistic license fits well with the Oklahoma motel setting of the play, though perhaps this bar is a little ‘nicely’ decorated, offering posh cocktails as opposed to hard cheap liquor and fairy lights as opposed to flickering neon. Having arrived in good time the bar was almost empty, but watching a diverse audience arrive proved both interesting and unexpectedly amusing. Being aware of the unreserved seating, a queue for entry started half an hour before the doors open, and as the queue gradually built up, it became tighter; twisting through two rooms, people shuffling their feet impatiently. Here another thing occurred to me; that the tension building up in the room, with people trying to push into the queue and one tetchy punter pointing out “This is a queue”, made for an amusing parallel to what was about to unfold over the next two hours. At this point we all shuffled up a staircase wound around a wrought iron lift shaft, and were ushered into the performance space.
“Bug” tells the story of Agnes, a waitress living in the motel, hiding from her violent ex-husband Jerry. One night, a friend introduces her to Peter, who we come to discover is a solider, possibly absent without leave. Agnes and Peter, both clearly lost, lonely souls begin an affair. The events which unfold provide a disturbing insight into love and paranoia, and how easily people can be influenced and destroyed.
The intimacy of the ‘room’ struck me instantly. Irrespective of where you sat, you could not be more than 10 feet from the action about to unfold. Essentially we walked into a typical double room and were seated in the round, on a selection of mis-matched chairs, all different materials, heights and styles, supporting the cheap quality of the setting. A typical budget roadside stopover; all neutral colours and wooden furniture, topped off with stained bedside lampshades and the obligatory bible, proving an amusing moment in the second act when Peter grabs it to crush a ‘bug’! Ben Stones’ design adds a sense of the familiar to the space, whilst maintaining a claustrophobic atmosphere which proves vital as the play unfolds. To my right, the doorway to the bathroom, a harsh blue strip light illuminating it through a frosted window, suggestive of a dingy en-suite. Diagonally left, the motel room door allows our characters in and out, with the doorway and small window lit to effectively convey time. Richard Howell’s lighting highlights the angles of the room, adding atmospheric shadows. His is a particularly challenging job at Found 111 since the space is so unusual; there are some especially effective moments, when Peter and Agnes use the beside lamps to examine the bed sheets, and the cold light emanating from the doorway, highlighting the extent of their paranoia and insanity towards the end of the play. Completing the technical merits of the production is Ed Lewis’ subtle soundscape. The unidentified buzzing which we may or may not have been imagining, the helicopters overhead which have been there the whole time but we only noticed as Peter’s paranoia intensified. The design team have clearly worked hard to draw the audience into the couple’s paranoia, and it works. We feel almost part of the experience, outside of the situation, but ironically, like flies on the walls!
Tracy Lett’s script is snappy and often overlaps, building tension and creating the sense that no one character is ever fully in control of their behaviour. The characters reveal just enough about themselves to make you curious, but not enough that we are able to trust them fully, which parallels how the characters feel about each other. The narrative is extremely accessible; it builds suspense, creates angst and together with Simon Evan’s claustrophobic direction really encourages a visceral reaction amongst the audience. It's an amusing sight to see when those around you seem to be developing involuntary itches on their arms! The themes of the play are as relevant today as when the play debuted at the Gate 20 years ago. Sadly, we still live in a world where there is war in the Middle East, where tragic bombings are taking place and soldiers suffer the effects of P.T.S disorder. Despite continuing stigma, we are perhaps now more sympathetic to the mental health issues Peter struggles with, and better equipped to support and treat it. One would think, this being the case, that the conspiracy theory put forward in the plot would be far less plausible to us, ridiculous even. However we live in a society still fascinated and obsessed with government secrets and UFOs, and it is shockingly easy to question whether Agnes’ slow descent into insanity is exactly that, or if in fact what Peter is saying is true. In this respect, the play’s resonance with the audience depends on what an individual believes; everyone can connect to the fragility of the characters, but some will also engage with the intricacies of the plot.
Kate Fleetwood and James Norton convey the central characters with a real sense of their journey before and during the action of the play. Fleetwood’s edgy, vulnerable Agnes, reliant on drugs and solitude to protect her from her ex-convict violent partner, skulks around her motel room, looking for danger in the shadows. Her twitching physicality and intense stare perfectly convey the effect of the drugs, and her apologetic body language serves to emphasise her insecurities. Through the play we see the character unfold in a fascinating manner; subtle changes in posture and body language, flashes of emotional depth changing from terror to love to confusion in the buzz of a lightbulb. These are qualities ever present in Kate Fleetwood’s work, and once again, she continues to impress, establishing great intensity and an instant chemistry with her co-star James Norton. Norton’s ‘Peter’ utterly convinces as a genuinely sweet, principled man, who wants to keep life simple and “make a connection.” His gentle gestures and physicality towards Agnes, and his honest delivery of the dialogue in the early stages of the play persuade you to believe he is a lost and lonely soul, making the transformation he undergoes over the course of the play that much more shocking. By the climactic ending, he is like a wild animal trapped in the motel room by his own paranoia, tearing at surroundings, ducking and twisting to avoid his ‘bugs’. The contrast between the vulnerable man we meet in Act One, with his honest statements and tame humour, and the paranoid soldier obsessing over his microscope is vast, and Norton is utterly convincing as both.
“Bug” is a production which climbs into your bag and follows you home when you leave. Its angst and intensity scratch away at your nerves, leaving you wondering if the closing moments were inevitable and necessary, or a tragic accident which could have been prevented. On reflection I think, the direction really wants you to side with Peter, to believe that he has indeed been experimented on and that, at worst, his condition is the result of these experiments. Norton’s portrayal flutters cleverly between the two; earnest and gentle one moment, aggressive and stern the next. The script has been insightfully interpreted by director and designer, and the production; with its fly paper, UV electric zappers and aluminium foil; captures the literal and psychological infestation of the body with real grit. It's a stressful, angst ridden night, but one that stays with you, making you question your own perception of the fate of this tragically futile couple.