What if help never comes for you? What if you started to see things? If a little girl with an X shaped scar where her mouth should be is trying to get in. And nobody else could see her.
On the wonderfully sunny 5th of May I was lucky enough to attend a performance of Alistair McDowall’s claustrophobic new play ‘X’ at the Royal Court Theatre in London. The premise of X appears a classic sci-fi trope, five astronauts left stranded on Pluto following a failure to contact Earth. However, from this simple idea an enormous range of complexities and tensions emerge, engaging with postmodern concerns such as our perception of time, memory and reality.
Act one largely focusses on establishing the decline of Earth and the memories everyone has left. Cole faces a barrage of questions about seeing one of the last trees (an almost mythic object to the young crew) and Ray reminisces on the days when he could hear birdsong, before they all fell from the trees, repeating their names and calls to himself in order to preserve his memory. Electronic memories are inauthentic and deceptive, forcing the crew to wait out the inevitable relying only on their own stability, offering an intense examination of how 5 people survive stranded together with little prospect of return. It is ‘Waiting for Godot’ with all pretence of a reality stripped away.
The struggle to retain memory is one of the greatest concerns as the crew and audience struggle to form a chronology and even a sense of what is real. As the lights return at the beginning of each scene, the clock displaying Earth time changes and it becomes increasingly apparent that this is not an accurate measure. In the closing scenes of act one the audience and crew witness the clock skip backwards, robbing the crew of a stable way to measure their stay and losing their final connection to any external reality. This glitch deprives them of any stability and we witness Ray’s violent deterioration in the face of the girl’s eventual appearance. Ultimately, without any way to create a complete timeline, the audience is as lost and tense as the crew.
In act two the crew and set continue to shrink; the furniture is stripped and scenes fragment even further. The clock is broken and the crew go over and over events, correcting each other, undermining many scenes and gradually striping away any sense of linear time or coherent version of events. Then the cancer kicks in. McDowall condenses the descent of months, if not years into a few minutes of fractured memories and shrieking anguish until the set is quiet once more. This scene may be considered overdone but the emotion is powerful and the memory loops intriguing in a way which forces our attention. Then, with only two cast members left (and a third possibly entirely fictional) the performance enters its most aggressively post-postmodern stage.
As memories slip further out of reach, language itself breaks down. X becomes the only syllable available to the stranded pair and they lose themselves in the void of memory. I found this to be a pertinent reference to Jaques Derrida as it tackles our relationship with language, if we are unable to think outside the boundaries of language, what happens when it breaks down? McDowall appears to suggest that we will lose ourselves and become lost in the void of referentiality. He fills this void with a montage of madness and memories until the girl returns. No longer a threat but a possible answer to the madness, her presence is comforting and human in a play which strips away the identities of its cast. Fundamentally, the ambiguous conclusion raises as many questions as it answers, and audiences are left to ponder the effects of waiting out the inevitable, the nature of the inevitable and, most pressing of all, why didn’t they run out of cereal?