[Uncomfortable Chuckling in an Apocalyptic Setting]
Inspired by the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear explosion of 2011 in Japan, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children first premiered in London in November 2016 and was follow by a season on Broadway in the Winter of 2017. Set in an undefined time following a nuclear disaster, the play unfolds as a barb-ridden domestic drama between a married pair of retired nuclear scientists unsettled by a visit from an old friend. Plumb Productions deliver an impressively choreographed drama with provocative monologues and sharp-witted diatribes. The audience reels from a palpable sense of discomfort hanging in the air – one that disturbs us even as we giggle hesitantly through the darkest humour in the play.
France Roberts’ intimately-designed living room set is meticulously detailed, from the drinking water storage tank in the kitchen area to the standalone 1980s style living room lamp next to a cosy armchair. The faint sounds of a seascape can be heard over audience chatter as we settle into our seats for the performance. As the lights come up as the sound of the waves crashing onto the shore gets louder, a formally-dressed woman appears to be containing a nose-bleed. Another woman dressed in a floral kitchen apron bursts onto the stage, fussing gently over the injured woman and handing her a tea towel.
We’re immediately drawn into their conversation, curious as to why they are both in this domestic setting. The injured woman, Rose (Elizabeth Hawthorne), politely asserts her ability to look after herself, and the homemaker-like character, Hazel (Carmel McGlone), begins to ask after her visitor’s health. The atmosphere buzzes with trepidation as we are thrust into nostalgia at a galloping pace. We are told that these two haven’t met for a long while, and as they launch into swapping anecdotes about the past, we are invited to consider that things are awry in this setting – they appear to be discussing the shortage of electricity and the fact that drinking water is rationed while tap water cannot even be used to rinse off a chopping board.
Rose has no children and never committed to a long-term relationship (a fact that Hazel seems to resent in a most English fashion – by saying ‘ah’ with an effect). The contrast between Hazel having four children and Rose having none highlights the symbolism of humanity’s footprint needing to be reduced due to the actions of corporations exploiting the burning of fossil fuels and upending the balance in the planet’s biosphere. My curiosity piqued, I wonder if Rose insisting on keeping her bloodstained top on will lead to more underhand messaging about the world being in a dark place. A later moment finds us gaping at a resurfacing of a second nose-bleed due to Hazel lashing out at another character, re-emphasising the point about panic-driven violence leading to actual harm.
The audience find themselves in the position of trying to piece together Rose’s background while being lulled into the sense that Hazel’s reality is more familiar to many of us. Looking around me, I note that more than two-thirds of the audience are of the middle-aged and older demographic, even as people around me guffaw and snort at Hazel’s attempts at small talk. The linear structure of the play adds to this lulled sense of familiarity, which is somewhat jolted when Hazel’s husband Robin (David Aston) returns home from attending to the cows. The use of a Geiger counter drives the noir theme of the play home – we are not in ‘normal’ territory. For a moment, I wonder whether we are being asked to root for any of these characters. Maybe the similar ages of the majority of the audience and the characters onstage are resonating through idioms.
We see Robin condescend to his wife in the presence of their visitor, and flirt and grope Rose when Hazel temporarily leaves the room a little later. The Children strips us of the facade of cheery optimism that the world encourages us to wear by laying bare the many desires and flaws that coexist alongside vanity and vulnerability in its characters. The knowledge that the world is ending, and a fragmented and gradually fading resistance to finding oneself resigned to the inevitability of accepting that knowledge, is the core of this story. Carmel McGlone’s standout performance as Hazel is the metaphorical and literal embodiment of that unravelling, even as we see her admit to being terrified of no longer being as sea levels continue to edge closer to her doorstep.
Elizabeth Hawthorne’s siren-like performance represents a clear foil to Hazel’s control-freak personality, and underlines the sense of doom that pervades the plot through her readiness to admit that death is much closer to them and her determination that younger individuals must be given a chance to survive. It is curious to watch David Aston’s consummate performance as the sole male character, Robin – a man who walks the delicate balance between entrenched toxic masculinity and white privilege on the one hand, and the struggle to express regret and affection on the other. I would find it difficult to believe that anyone in the audience wasn’t moved by the way in which these actors brought complex, layered emotions to the surface in the rapid succession of bizarre conversations grounded in the certain knowledge that the world is beyond saving in this apocalyptic place.
I was keen on learning more about the personal intimacy between Robin and Rose, so was left unsatisfied by the scene where Rose decides to put on some music and persuades these characters to enjoy themselves for a few moments. I felt contented as I watched Hazel lead the choreography, and the fleeting ability to let go of anxiety and tension felt like a release of pent-up stress, but the scene would have benefited from a more introspective section of dialogue between the three characters after their dance.
Opportunities to explore this intimate history later on come interspersed with discussions around Lauren, Hazel and Robin’s firstborn, who does not appear and whose voice is not heard during the performance. I found that Lauren’s character needed more exploration to be able to justify sweeping statements about ‘their generation’ and how they are coping with the inaction and deferred decision-making practiced by Hazel’s generation. On reflection, the absence of any characters of colour in the play underscored the privilege of surviving nuclear disaster for a UK script performed before a predominantly Pākehā audience. The inclusion of these themes would have made for a more well-rounded production, mindful of its responsibility to inform and educate an audience that isn’t monocultural either in it’s multicultural country of origin, or in 2019 Aotearoa.
Sean Lynch’s lighting is understated, gradually shifting the mood of the space to correspond with daytime transitioning into twilight, and candle-lit in the absence of electricity at nighttime. It helps the meticulously-detailed set design communicate an open-ended reassurance of domesticity to the audience. There is something unnerving about the interspersed sections of sound effects that triggers a flurry of reactions onstage, amplifying the sense that this world has been beset by a panicked mood of disarray.
As we reel from digesting each fine-tuned line from a cleverly-paced script, the play fires yet another visual metaphor at us in the form of an overflowing toilet. Watching the characters step over the spill, going out of their way to avoid getting their shoes dirty, I am reminded of the many everyday ways that we refuse to give up our vanity and our ego in the face of impending doom. The Children represents yet another attempt to shake humanity from its complacency around climate catastrophe, calling into question our many preconceived ideas about how much or how little the world can change in an atmosphere characterised by dwindling hope.
Throughout, Paul Gittins’ astute direction toys with the tension in the room, puncturing it through the subtle yet hard-hitting dialogue with surgical precision. As I leave the theatre, I mull over our inaction in the face of the stark realities of people dying every day across the globe. Hopefully decision-makers of all generations have the opportunity to watch these thought-provoking performances as a contribution to Auckland’s climate emergency, especially considering the sparse reporting around the largest melting of the Greenland ice sheet in recorded history.
The Children plays until 18th August at the Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre.