Meeting the team of X at 10am on the first day of term, I was worried that everyone might be slightly bleary-eyed. But director Joe Matty, producer Eve Allin, and actors Nicole de Barra and Luke Mott, are simmering with energy. Jokes abound, affectionate and knowing. You could be forgiven for thinking that their project was a comedy.
But their humour is just an antidote to a dark play. X is the latest offering from young playwright Alistair McDowall (a fan favourite at Warwick – students here put on two other of his plays last year). The play is “set on a research base on Pluto some time in the near future, when Earth has breathed its last and planet colonisation is taking place. A group of scientists on this research base have become cut off from Earth – absolute radio silence – and all they can do is wait to be rescued. And in that process of waiting weird things start taking place, and all the structures that hold together what they know start to break down. And,” Matty summarises, “it all goes a bit crazy.”
Mott’s assessment is that the “story is so weird. It’s like Black Mirror on crack.” To which everybody starts laughing. “We can’t advertise it like that!” says Allin. But no one disagrees with him.
The story is so weird. It’s like Black Mirror on crack
Matty explains that “there are so many different avenues that you could go with this piece,” but what quickly emerges is the play’s environmental conscience. “I don’t think that necessarily it was written as a political piece of theatre,” Matty argues, “but inherently, because of where we as a planet are headed, it’s become more political.” Mott thinks that because the play is “pro-environment, it will speak to our generation.”
The team are keen to “create platforms” so that conversations can continue after the show finishes. “We’re trying to be political in our ethos,” explains Allin. “We’re going to do a plastic-free week – that’s going to be hard. A lot of our marketing is paperless – it’s the least posters I’ve ever ordered for a show. Because of that we’re finding new ways to market stuff. A lot is online but also surprise things which I don’t know if I can talk about! The week after the show we’ve got some really exciting theatre-makers coming in to work with us. So it’s about the show beyond the show – how can we make more sustainable theatre, theatre that’s political but also human.”
It’s about how to make theatre that’s political but also human
Matty is wary though of pushing the political message too hard. “It’s a balancing act. As you soon as you put own interpretation into the script, you’re going to lose all the wealth and brilliance that an audience will bring to it. In the end you just have to play the text and allow the audience to take away from it what they will.”
The team are in no doubt that the audience will have opinions. “One of the really special things about Alistair McDowall’s work is you can’t help but have a conversation about it afterwards. It gets you talking, gets you engaged.” De Barra is excited to see the audience’s reaction. “I feel like it’s an unsafe play for the minds of the audience, because it has the potential to do quite harsh things – it is so telling and so truthful.” Mott interjects, whispering. “Like Black Mirror… on crack.”
It’s an unsafe play for the minds of the audience, because it has the potential to do quite harsh things
Nicole de Barra
These four members of the team are very experienced theatre-makers. But they talk about X as an unprecedented challenge. “I’ve never spent so much time talking about a script,” says de Barra, “but that’s not a bad thing!” Mott agrees: “Not only are we working as a collective to get the big images and points across, but the directors have made sure that individually we have a very personal connection to what we’re talking about. We hope the audience will be able to see the genuine-ness.”
Another challenge is how “technically heavy” the script is. Hence the collaboration with Tech Crew: “They’ve got amazing ideas, they’ve contributed as much to the vision as us.”
Assured and articulate, Matty has the final word. “It’s an unsafe play, unstable, a play that is difficult and hard-hitting. It feels like a punch in the gut when you read it. It knocks the breath out of you.” And with that, they bound off to rehearsal, their laughter irrepressible. Whatever else, a lot of joy has gone into the making of this production. If I had to be stuck on a spaceship on Pluto, I wouldn’t mind doing it with this lot.
X is at the Warwick Arts Centre, Wednesday 23 – Saturday 26 January. Tickets are available here.