Fear of the unknown – it’s an interesting premise for a play. How To Survive A Swarm of Bees, a new piece of writing from Lo/Fall Theatre Company and part of Evolution, the current festival at the Lyric Hammersmith, explores this idea through two couples trapped in separate rooms. At least, they’re probably in separate rooms. And quite what they’re afraid of remains a mystery. Unfortunately, this short piece falls below the bar simply because it offers an audience no clue as to what is going on. It’s almost unknown itself.
Writer Anna Crace doesn’t exactly enlighten us as to the world she has placed her characters in. This is often very welcome: it’s nice not to be spoonfed every exact detail and to let your imagination create scenarios, yet here we’re almost being spoken to through buzzwords. War, nets, the underground – it doesn’t really paint any picture in your mind. There’s also that titular storm of bees that are apparently on their way, but aside from the odd passing reference they don’t seem to have much purpose at all, aside from to confuse us further. If it’s meant to be a metaphor, it’s a very vague and perplexing one. There’s no stakes, no investment; there are clearly dramatic moments happening on stage, but because there is no rhyme and reason to it, I found it hard to react to on an emotional level. That said, Crace’s decision to have both conversations occurring at the same time is a good one, and does allow us to draw clear parallels between the two universes – one more surreal than the other. The problem is that, because the dialogue never really extends beyond a sentence (heck, even a word), the play is very stop-start. The performance isn’t quite polished enough for these moments to become free-flowing and at times. It all gets really. Really. Slow.
Speaking of performances, Laurie Ogden, Grace Lyons Hudson, Ciaran Byrne and Kwami Odoom do a decent enough job with what they’re given, but it sort of feels as though they’re playing with nothing. You don’t get much sense of character, aside from Ogden and Hudson are afraid to go outside because of something, Byrne and Odoom do want to go outside because they’re not afraid of something, and that everyone seems to like soup. Again, there’s not a lot to go on. There are nice moments, such as when a leaf blows in and it causes uproar in both camps (for one a knee-jerk terrified reaction, the other a sense of opportunity). Scenes like this go a long way to helping us develop our protagonists and they’re very welcome, but when it does come time for those big emotional moments towards the play’s end, they’re not earned and come off rather forced.
This also highlights another major weakness with this production – the direction. The Studio at the Lyric is a lovely venue but it is rather big for only four actors, especially if we’re playing an isolated locked room drama. Director Filip Schwarz compounds this by having all the lights turned up, by having his actors play into corners and by filling the room with what must be over a hundred white pillows. Quite why there are pillows everywhere remains to be seen, although it does lead to some nice fort building, and the actors can use them to take their frustration out. But everything does look very cosy, especially for people living in hiding. Ultimately, you’re just left thinking “wow, what a lot of pillows”. Schwarz also can’t seem to decide where his actors are, or who they’re speaking to. Couples who apparently aren’t in the same room will randomly deliver lines to each other and move amongst each other; at one point opposite partners of a couple appear to kiss against the back wall. Just what is going on there? Bafflingly, actors sometimes block each other too, which is ridiculous when you consider the size of the acting space. Yes, I was on the back row and still couldn’t see.
Sadly, How To Survive A Swarm Of Bees doesn’t live up to the premise it has set itself. Behind everything, I am sure there are two great stories waiting to be told, but neither of them are working in this format at the moment. Clarity needs to be found, either through the writing or direction, but both are so confusing that they fight against each other and make it difficult for any light to be shed on what is happening. It all comes off as rather pretentious I’m afraid.
How to Survive a Swarm of Bees played as part of the Evolution Festival at the Lyric Hammersmith. For more information, see the Lyric Hammersmith website.