Over 80 years after The Mercury Theatre’s infamous broadcast of H.G Wells’ The War of the Worlds, scepticism of the media is at an all-time high. Considered one of the greatest media hoaxes of all time, the show, broadcast in 1938, chronicles an alien invasion and was allegedly so convincing, that it led to some listeners fleeing their houses. Those who scoff at the gullibility of 1938 radio listeners would do well to look up later performances, which led to similar hysteria and in one case a riot.
In a post-broadcasting defence of the piece, Wells alleged he was trying to make people think critically about the content they consumed on the radio. Gone are the days of radio for the most part, replaced by YouTube, Internet news blogs and podcasts. Rhum & Clay’s adaptation is an examination of the two latter mediums, exploring what truth means for them.
This adaptation fuses extracts of the radio adaptation with a story about a self-inserting vlogger and podcaster (Mona Goodwin) exploring the roots of her neighbour’s family feud at significant financial cost, but for no apparent reasons. Goodwin is the self-centred Meena presenting the complex picture of ruthlessness and hunger for content under the blogger’s friendly veneer; both a credit to her skill as an actress and the writing of Isley Lynn.
The ghost of the original broadcast looms heavily over this adaptation, stealing the thunder out of Matthew Wells’ movement direction which is slick and otherworldly; and from the beautiful lighting design of Nick Flintoff and Pete Maxey. The piece’s recreation of excerpts from the radio broadcast is well-performed and engaging, but the question of “yes but what else?’ niggles at the mind of audience members. It’s a hard task to bring something extra to Wells’ masterpiece that was able to captivate listeners without lights and without faces. Though the action on stage is engaging, it is Wells’ words that are the most memorable. Rhum & Clay’s adaption initially only makes a good story a little bit better.
Meena’s subplot ironically makes comedy of the vlogger’s slight reach by linking a family dispute to The War of the Worlds and then fake news and Trump’s America, but then the play goes on to do exactly that. And the equivalence of tricking the masses into believing the occurrence of an alien invasion as a prank with the truthfulness of an investigative podcast conducted by an amoral pseudo-journalist does not in my opinion work.
The War of the Worlds has some great performances from Goodwin, Julian Spooner, Amalia Vitale and Wells donning multiple characters across space and time. And its depiction of small town life and a place both obsessed with preserving the memory of the fiction through bringing it to reality, and ambivalence to its significance. It does, at times, rely on well-worn jokes about Trumpism, fake news and Liberals. Vitale’s Lawson is particularly darling, a no nonsense, small town woman desperate to get to know he family.
As long as there continues to be media, The War of the Worlds will continue to be relevant reminding us all of how we too can be vulnerable to false information. As fake alien invasions are less likely to fly with audiences today, The War of the Worlds finds the correct target in the form of podcasts and YouTubers, but can’t quite get its message off the ground.
The War of the Worlds is playing at New Diorama Theatre until 9 February 2019. For more information and tickets, see the New Diorama Theatre website here.