It’s HG Wells via Orson Welles and Donald Trump for the original ‘fake news’ story: The War of The Worlds at MAST Mayflower Studio
Rhum and Clay’s Matt Wells and Julian Spooner tell us to expect laughter, visual thrills and even modern technology in their critically acclaimed production of The War of the Worlds.
When HG Wells published his classic sci-fi novel back in 1898 it’s doubtful he would have imagined his work being performed on stage more than a century later. And certainly not in a production that includes a podcast. Although I suppose he might have guessed at ‘Podcast’ being the collective modern name given to the strange alien beings of his story; the Extra Terrestrials that invaded leafy Surrey and saw humans as ‘edible ants’. But there you go.
Fact, it would appear, is indeed often stranger than fiction.
And our fascination with the story shows no sign of abating. From a historic radio play to Jeff Lynne’s concept album of the 1970s, several movie versions and now even an ‘interactive experience’, Herbert Wells certainly wrote an enduring belter.
‘We like to take source material and deconstruct it. We thought this wonderful sci-fi yarn, along with the extraordinary reaction to Welles’ radio broadcast, was a fascinating combination to use as an illustration of early fake news and we wanted to put our own spin on that,’ co-artistic director Clay Matt Wells explains.
Ah yes. The infamous radio play broadcast. For the uninitiated, this was the Orson Welles version that on airing in 1938 saw America panicking that there really had been an alien invasion in New Jersey.
‘It’s almost a show about The War of the Worlds,’ says Matt’s fellow artistic director Julian Spooner.
‘We use the broadcast to ask why we believe in stories, including of alien invasion, and take a through line to the run-up to the 2016 presidential election in the United States.’
A testament to the initial story, Matt and Julian (who also appear in the production) have created a show that has been so highly acclaimed that the current tour marks its third outing. Following on from a sold-out run at London’s New Diorama Theatre and being a smash-hit at the Edinburgh Festival, their The War of the Worlds homes in on the here and now’s climate of disinformation. Cleverly, it reinvents the story to the point of making it feel fresh and relevant, while retaining all the suspense and mystery of the original.
‘We have confusion about what’s real and not real today,’ observes Matt. ‘The truth feels like it’s a matter of perspective rather than fact. Our version is about that line between truth and fiction.
‘We like to take big ideas and make them accessible, without diluting anything, and we love to tell a good story. Everyone loves an alien invasion, but creatively we’ve woven in a modern day narrative about a podcaster and there is a fizzing political current going through it.
‘We also make very physical and very visual work. A lot of influences are closer to cinema, so it’s very immediate and vital. And there’s an award-winning sound score that runs through the whole thing. We hope that there’s something in there for everyone.’
The reviews from critics and feedback from theatregoers back him up on this, with both groups confirming that the show and its performers deliver ‘plenty of theatrical punches.’
‘It’s very funny and entertaining and theatrical,’ agrees Julian, ‘Very physical – we are known for our physical approach – but it really is multi-layered.’
This tour also marks a welcome milestone for the duo, as it sees Rhum and Clay’s work moving from small-scale to mid-scale theatres like Southampton’s MAST Theatre.
‘Being booked by bigger theatres has allowed us to develop the show’s production values. It’s lovely to keep adding different layers. That’s a real privilege,’ Matt is clearly chuffed.
‘And we have never been to many of the theatres on this tour schedule as a company before, so that is really exciting,’ Matt adds.
Something else they were excited by was the appointment of playwright Isley Lynn to the project.
‘Sci-fi is a very male dominated genre so we wanted to find a female writer to counteract that. She is a wonderful writer and has given the piece a unique perspective,’ says Matthew.
‘And when you’re doing a show about fake news and touching on the era of Donald Trump, a female voice is incredibly important within that conversation,’ adds Julian.
‘She also brought a really beautiful human touch to the story and creates very believable characters. Not just intellectually stimulating and conceptually interesting, but something that really takes people on a ride and gets them to engage and believe in the characters.’
On the subject of believability, what do they reckon: is there anything out there?
‘Ive absolutely no idea and I’m totally happy with that!’ Matt laughs.
Julian ponders a while longer before saying: ‘On a mathematical level there has to be a life form of something, but I wouldn’t say that it was anything that resembles us.’
Little green men running amok in deep space aside, here on planet Earth it sounds like they’ve got a hit on their hands.
To misquote ET, arguably the most famous alien of modern times, don’t phone home. Phone the box office instead.
WAR OF THE WORLDS
MAST Mayflower Studio, Soton
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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