X - Royal Court Theatre

Ticket and programme for X.

What if I was to tell you that the ultimate Pandora’s Box lies on the very edge of our solar system? If your imaginings of this ancient mythical treasure trove are of a beautifully ornate, golden box which locks with a key, you are mistaken. This hidden gem is a dull, lifeless grey colour, lying tilted at an awkward angle in the middle of a frozen glacier on Pluto. There is no key to speak of, just an airlock keeping in the fears, torments and memories of a dying species….our own. From inside the box, the most prominent view is of darkness, the nothingness of a desolate planet. Compare that to the hot box on display from the outside looking in…which is where we find ourselves.

“X” is Alistair McDowall’s latest play, coming after “Talk Show” and “Pomona”, both similarly non-linear, dystopian creations; the latter set on a concrete island in Manchester. So where better to examine the fragile concepts of time and memory, but a research base on Pluto? McDowall is not afraid to experiment with the breaking down of language and use of pause to create suspense. Act One is essentially a series of duologues introducing the characters and their responses to each other, gradually building to the interval climax which produced a gasp from the entire audience the night I attended, a visceral response I have not witnessed in a theatre in quite some time. What struck me most was the disturbing inevitability underpinning the text. A voice seemingly convinced we will destroy our planet, that some kind of colonisation will surely lie in our future. McDowall’s voice is one of acceptance and perhaps this is why, on leaving the theatre, I felt compelled to consider what the world will look like for the next generation…what their lives will bring. Being isolated in the most remote place on earth, with so little to occupy the mind encourages numerous philosophical questions; the most prominent of which revolve around how one can retain a secure sense of who they are with no access to a functional society? Surely under these circumstances, we are reliant on the past. We share facts and hold on to our quirks. Progress as we know it, is governed by our relationship to the earth…but the earth has gone silent and as a crew are forced to confront feelings of abandonment, they have to address their fears.

The scientists and astronauts who make up the crew are the first to colonise Pluto in the face of an imminent environmental collapse back on earth. Ray, (Darrell D'Silva),  longs for the pre-digital age in which he grew up. He has nothing to go home to, and his memorising of bird song, although amusing, is moving in its simple nostalgia. Initially the character provides a balance to the increasingly anxious younger crew, before he begins to fall apart. There is a stark contrast between D’Silva’s calm resolution, and the insolent bravado of James Harkness’ Clark, the younger Scottish astronaut who passes the time on the exercise bike or enjoying games of ‘Guess Who’ a little too much.  His performance is well layered, you get the feeling he's not as mouthy and thoughtless as he makes out to be. His attitude serves as a shield against his growing insecurity, and later the cracks begin to show. The crew is completed with two more scientists; Cole (Rudi Dharmalingam, who comes into his own in Act Two as the characters disintegrate) a focused mathematician with a child back on earth, and Gilda (Jessica Raine), the reluctant leader who appears to carry no weight as Captain of the base. Raine portrays Gilda’s fragile state with clarity, from the repeated gesture of chewing on her hair, to the way she eats cereal straight from the box without milk. Her staccato delivery and unsteady pitch reflect her emotional state perfectly, and this subtle characterisation allows us to follow Gilda through the suppressed hysteria bubbling under the surface into the chaos which unfolds towards the end of the play.

A metallic grey box frames the stage, inside which is the main living area on the base, minimalist and clinical in appearance. Daily routine on the base operates around a digital clock, which sits above an enormous window, and beyond that stretches the dark starkness of the planet. Merle Hensel’s design has a clear sense of how best to support the claustrophobic life these characters are living. The window is also used to keep watch for danger, as an unbreakable barrier preventing escape, and as the focal point for the appearance of a large red ‘X’ which becomes significant in numerous ways. The clock above, with its large red digits, is the only marker of time on the set, seemingly taking longer and longer to flicker as the action unfolds. I'm sure Ray and Clark’s regular board game could not have taken 15 minutes…yet I'm sure they finished at 10.45, and its now 10.00…perhaps I was as lost in the constant darkness of the planet as they were. Lee Curran’s lighting design proves particularly successful in adding to the challenge of tracking time. Scene changes take place in snap blackouts, which become longer in duration, plunging the audience into the same pitch darkness that surrounds the crew. It is disorientating, and encourages the initial sensation of panic, before snapping back on to reveal the next piece of action. Once it became clear that the clock was resetting, we realised events were not taking place in real time; time is no longer a certainty. The visual elements of the production are cleverly used to symbolise the feelings of confusion, frenzy and chaos central to the play, particularly the second act. The base itself is reinforced with highlighted lines that work their way along parts of the walls and floor, accentuating the shape of the room. But these soon dissolve, and are replaced with white noise that fills the space making the floor and walls seem less concrete. Indeed time appears to be dissolving before our eyes, and in these moments, strange events begin to take place. 

Vicky Featherstone’s direction focuses on the inner struggles of the crew, its simplicity allows McDowall’s dialogue to breath, unfolding at its own pace. We are pulled alongside the characters; getting to know their tempo, empathising with their plight and making decisions regarding our own opinions of other members of the crew based on which character we identify with most. We are somehow identifying with characters who have lost their identity…an interesting and disturbing prospect!

It is crucial the secrets and memories of the crew are maintained, however one can guarantee some unexpected twists and turns, and startling events. Aliens? Ghosts? Hallucinations? One cannot be sure, just as one cannot be sure how much of what we have witnessed happened, or was imagined. Ultimately, there will be greatly differing opinions on this production. From a subjective position, some audience members love the freedom an ambiguous plot offers, others may prefer something more structured. What is certain is that Alistair McDowall is keeping “X” intentionally ambiguous. As an audience member I felt this ambiguity was justified since in my mind at the play’s core, is the exploration of the meaning of ‘X’. This is, I believe, intentionally a baffling and confusing experience. The ending is unexpected. The closing minutes, challenging and complex….but then, so is crafting an algorithm to solve time.