With technology being a constant, growing threat to how people interact with each other – how social media can alienate and provoke apathy – Arthur’s World at the Bush Theatre touches a nerve. How do we, as we are growing less and less connected to ourselves and our loved ones, manage to hold on to the important relationships in our lives, and learn when to let go?
As cynical as it all might sound, we are heading towards chaos when it comes to interaction and empathy – at least on the surface. What Helena Thompson’s delicate but gutsy new play shows is that at the core of it, we all want the same: we want to be accepted, and to hold on to what we love. We are hungry for connection, no matter what world we live in, no matter where we come from, what school we went to or how old we are.
In Arthur’s World the public domain is falling to pieces. An OAP, Arthur hides out from the destructive future in his grotty council flat, shut out from reality and living on the memory of his son. It’s Michael’s twentieth birthday and, though he’s been missing for a while, Arthur clings to the faint hope of his return – for everything to be as it was before, for a sense of reality and meaning in his constrained existence. But when there’s finally someone at the door, it’s someone else entirely, and Arthur has to face the truth of the world crumbling outside and the loss of his son.
The play hits on identity and what forms it. The ‘Fights’ escalated from a game that Michael created, a game of survival and kill that called for identity play and allowed its players to take on a different form. Online you can be anyone you want – that’s the possibility of social media. We form ourselves the way we want to be perceived. All the characters hide behind a mask that eventually reveals who they truly are; even Kino, the rough teenager from the streets, is afraid. Joseph Tremain is physically bold and vicious, but portrays a deeply troubled boy who is looking for a real relation just as much as anyone else. His performance is compelling in the intimate space of The Attic, and though he is as foul-mouthed and untamed as a street rat, he is strangely loveable. Michael (Enyi Okoronkwo) hides behind a calm, intelligent and superior exterior but feels scattered and broken inside, desperately trying to find his own identity and in which bracket of society he belongs to. Even Arthur (the brilliantly dry-humoured Paul Greenwood) is hiding in booze and pills to dull the pain of what life can offer him.
Mel Cook’s production is an intense but strikingly delicate insight into human nature. Set in The Attic at the Bush, we are invited into Arthur’s flat and placed on furniture and cushions around the small space as flies on the wall, witnessing something very alluring in its simplicity. We are in the middle of the action, never in the way, but watching the lives of three damaged people like a ghost lurking in the corner. The performances are excellent, with a crisp realism engaging us every moment in the round, and the very different characters bounce off each other with precision and ease. Cook’s direction is subtle but spot on, and Anna Reid’s design makes us feel safely at home in the bubble of the flat as the riots roar outside, ready to break the spell at any moment.
Arthur’s World is a powerful piece of new writing and is thought-provokingly clever in the questions it raises. Incredibly engaging, though slightly confusing in plot at times, it’s so well-balanced in drive, tone and character that we are on the edge of our seat all the way through. A hidden little gem at the top of the Bush.
Arthur’s World is playing at the Bush Theatre until 14 February. For tickets and more information, see the Bush Theatre website. Photo by Nick Rutter.