X at the Royal Court Theatre
Waiting for X to begin, there’s an audible buzz of anticipation in the packed auditorium. Not surprising given it was written by Alistair McDowall, hailed by critics as the future of British theatre, and whose previous plays have featured a time machine on a Middlesbrough council estate and a nightmarish deserted island in the middle of Manchester.
For his latest offering, McDowall has left Earth firmly behind and set the drama on Pluto, where the remaining crew of a research base have lost contact with home and are waiting to be rescued. Part sci-fi thriller, it’s a gripping two-and-a-half hours with a couple of very creepy bits thrown in. Under Vicky Featherstone’s skilful direction, the monotony of being lost in space mounts, the atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia becomes palpable, and the five-strong cast (all excellent) slowly begin to unravel.
In the same vein as McDowall’s other dystopian writing, X is also a terrifying glimpse into the future. Whole countries have disappeared, along with most living things, and whilst Mars builds a master race “full of blonde Americans”, the old and weak are jettisoned out to lesser planets to save tax payers’ money. In a world where trees can only be imagined through the stories of past generations and the sound of a nightingale can only be created by blowing through a bird whistle, McDowall asks us to envision what the human race could become.
The Royal Court is increasingly daring with the staging of its plays, and this is no exception. Merle Hensel’s set conjures a narrow, sparse world, framed by a circular window that looks out onto a black nothingness. The talents of Lee Curran (lighting), Tal Rosner (video) and Nick Powell (sound design) create a thrilling visual experience that is reminiscent of The Nether. Intermittently plunged into a pulsating darkness throughout the evening, viewers are never quite sure what they are going to see when the lights come up.
It’s not often that a play has its audience quite literally on the edge of their seats. Time-bending, mesmerising and darkly funny, X asks what it means to be human, and to be alone in the universe. Just be warned though: you may need to watch it twice.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
X is on at the Royal Court Theatre from 30th March until 7th May 2016. Book your tickets here.