X, Royal Court

Alistair McDowall’s Pomona was one of the best things I saw last year, after it transferred to the National. Like many others I eagerly awaited his latest work, X, at the Royal Court. Set on a research station on Pluto some time in the future after all the trees and birds have died on earth, The team of four (or is it five?) have been forgotten. Or maybe there’s been an apocalypse on Earth. Or they’ve been deliberately left. We never find out. When the clock they live their life by breaks, everything else around and within them collapses. The longer they’re out there, the less real things become. 

Like in Pomona, McDowall explores time, the nature of reality, and the impact these factors have on relationships and individual characters’ mental stability. Whilst lacking the immediately visceral impact of Pomona, X is a more austere, mature play in content, but is structured in a way that is open to individual interpretation – what is objective reality what is inside the characters’ heads? The ideas are much more interesting than this particular execution, though. The characters are a bit boring and underdeveloped, victims to their surroundings and their own minds. Without the excellent tech and design brought in by director Vicky Featherstone, X would struggle to hold some people’s attention. With two acts radically different in style and questioning the other’s veracity, individual audience members will prefer one over the other and draw their own conclusions about what the “real” story is. Though a highly commendable thing for fostering dialogue, it can also confuse and alienate the more casual theatregoer, leaving broader themes and ideas ignored. Together though, the two halves make a splendid, provocative whole if the ideas are able to be seen past any immediate frustrations with plot or characterisation.

There seem to be theoretical physics and pop culture references at work that I’m missing due to having no interest in physics or science fiction, but the question of how much strain the human brain can endure under extreme circumstances has relevance beyond McDowall’s remote world. These characters could be anywhere: a brothel in the middle of London, a refugee camp, or a war prison. With months turning into years, infrastructures breaking down and no means of communicating with the outside world or anywhere to go, the disempowerment and inner collapse is palpable. Their inability to act feels like a sci-fi Beckett and Chekhov as McDowall rips, folds and turns linear time.

Though the characters are understandably powerless, it’s their perpetual victimhood that makes them hard to stomach. Gilda’s anxious crying quickly becomes tedious, as does Clark’s standoffishness. Ray and Cole are more complex, but seen less often. More of Mattie’s humour would help alleviate the near-constant intensity. There are some lovely moments of tenderness in the second half; Jessica Raine (Gilda) and James Harkness (Clark) scene of intimacy is particularly lovely, as is Raine’s transformation towards both young and older Mattie. 

Merle Hensel’s design simply sets up the prospect of skewed perception that develops into full-on chaos the longer the characters wait. It’s a fantastic development full of surprises, tightly mirroring McDowall’s unraveling of time, sanity and language. I don’t know if it was a deliberate choice by lighting designer Lee Curran or a happy accident of light reflections, but the spot of blue in the sole window looking out on nothing served as a constant reminder of the blue planet they left behind.

Alistair McDowall’s gifts for surprising the audience and questioning our perception of reality is running full tilt in X, but it takes awhile to build up speed. Though the first half provides necessary context, there’s a slowness to the character’s waiting for rescue that is a bit dull. But once the clock breaks and the lack of time ushers in a new existence, we see bigger forces are at work behind our tiny lives. 

X runs at The Royal Court until 7 May.

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