Alistair McDowall’s X at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre is a self-conscious exercise in bafflement that eschews conventional linear dramaturgy in favour of obscurity. The setting – which is one of the rare unambiguous elements of the evening – is a British research facility on Pluto. Earth is suffering an environmental meltdown, and all the birds and trees, we’re told, are dead.
Things are even worse on Pluto, which, being on the outer edges of our solar system, exists in perpetual darkness. Even the days are longer than those on Earth. Just how much longer is hard to determine, as the digital clock that dominates the laboratory has gone on the blink, thus further disorientating the five-member research team whose mission is never fully delineated.
Gilda (Jessica Raine) is a scientist on the verge of a breakdown as she attempts to bring some sort of structure to the endless days and nights (except no one can tell which is which!). Clark (James Harkness) is an astronaut-cum-insensitive-git whose life “is a blur of sex and adventure” and whose clotted brogue makes it impossible to decipher much of what he says. Cole (Rhudi Dharmalingham) is another scientist and a bit of a bore. Ray (Darrell D’Silva), also an astronaut and the oldest member of the group, is nostalgic for a time on Earth before the birds and the trees perished. The only function of Mattie (Ria Zmitrowicz), the fifth member of the team, is “to run tests every day.”
Despite the calculated obfuscation, there is no mistaking the fact that this motley crew has been abandoned by their colleagues on Earth. It has been at least three weeks since contact was made with them. Not surprisingly, panic of a dystopian nature takes over as all sense of time disintegrates and strange things begin to happen – like the mysterious appearance of the letter X on the laboratory’s solo window, and the sound of disembodied voices.
It is clearly the playwright’s intention that nothing is to be taken literally. This would account for why we’re never offered an explanation for the survival of the crew in such a hostile environment as Pluto. Nor are we given any scientific details about the length of time a round trip to Pluto from Earth would take. As for what century we’re in, or why the cast is wearing clothes circa 2016 – don’t even ask.
Nothing is meant to be taken literally, and what we’re being subjected to is a study in seismic disorientation and wilful obliqueness. Or, as my companion for the evening surmised after the final scene, the whole thing, was an elaborate allegory of extreme dementia. And who’s to say he’s wrong?
It’s also, if you like, a nightmare scenario redolent of any situation in which a group of individuals find themselves being driven mad while waiting to be rescued from some unimaginably frightening plight. Equally, you could interpret it as yet another variation on Sartre’s dictum that hell is other people.
Whatever its message, and despite some decent-enough performances, direction by Vicky Featherstone that certainly has flashy cinematic pizzazz, a deliberately disorienting and disjointed set by Merle Hensel, and an eerie score and sound effects from Nick Powell, X in no way marked the spot for me. Breaking established theatrical rules and regulations and abandoning all vestiges of narrative coherence is no guarantee of adventurous drama, and I couldn’t wait for this self-consciously discombobulated sci-fi conundrum to end.