Mosquitoes at the National Theatre: One of the most satisfying pieces of writing this year
Messiness is an underrated commodity in art. Something that overreaches is far more appealing than narrative or thematic compactness. All of this is to say that while Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes arguably grabs at too many threads before gradually letting them go, its willingness to push for revelations both domestic and (quite literally) universal makes it one of the chewiest and most satisfying pieces of writing this year.
Kirkwood’s bold, wide-ranging play brings to mind the kind of dense doorstop novel normally produced by American authors. Alice (Olivia Williams) is a scientist working on the Large Hadron Collider; Jenny (Olivia Colman), her sister, has just lost her baby. Alice’s son Luke (Joseph Quinn) is broiling in teenage angst, and their fierce mother (secret MVP Amanda Boxer) is showing signs of dementia. This is before Kirkwood gets into the battle between scientific inquiry and those who fear it, a nasty slice of Darwinism and the minefield that is the adolescent online experience. Oh, and a series of lectures from a man called The Boson (Paul Hilton), who comes across like a nihilistic Bill Nye delivering the dystopias from Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone.
It’s a lot. And yet, Kirkwood’s unwavering grip on the central relationships means the production can ride out any moments of silliness or excess. Rufus Norris’s direction is less ambitious; it shares some similarities with the Young Vic’s recent Life of Galileo, just not quite as snazzy projection-wise. Yet he still manages to find a nice fluidity that allows Kirkwood’s myriad ideas to co-exist.
It’s a savage, and savagely funny, play brought to life with genuine intimacy by the two Olivias. Colman balances comedic warmth and ugly, gut-wrenching rawness in the same sentence. Jenny is defensive and dismissive and cruel, until she isn’t and the weight of her pain and feelings of inadequacy cause her face to crumple. Williams is equally brilliant in a part that is perhaps even more difficult than Coleman’s. It would be very easy for Alice to come across as a stereotypical, cold scientist with a damaging work-life balance. It’s a testament to Kirkwood’s writing and Williams’s performance that Alice never succumbs to these clichés, instead having the same internal richness as her sister.
At times, the stage – Katrina Lindsay’s set resembles both the facilities at CERN and an ovum or womb – becomes a gladiatorial pit, the family tearing strips off each other until almost nothing is left. It’s the kind of play where hope can only creep in through pinpricks at the peripheries. But creep in it does. Though chaos may reign, just sometimes it produces a bit of beauty.
Mosquitoes is at the National Theatre from 25th July until 28th September 2017, for further information or to book visit here,