No one would have believed in the early days of the twenty first century how easily the masses could be led, their prejudices manipulated, their fears magnified and focused, to a purpose which would be alien and repellent to them if they were aware. Using the twin springboards of H G Wells’ 1898 novel of Martian invasion and Orson Welles’ infamous adaptation, theatre company Rhum and Clay explore the impact of The War of the Worlds and make it very contemporary.
Directed by Hamish McDougall and Julian Spooner from a script by Isley Lynn based on Wells’ novel and Howard Koch’s radio version broadcast by CBS on October 30th 1938, Mona Goodwin, Amalia Vitale, Matthew Wells and Spooner are the members of the Mercury Theatre on the Air, the listeners at home and those still caught in the ripples which spread out from the events of that night.
Taking the form of a series of news bulletins supposedly coming live from Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, where the first cylinder had crashed down out of the sky bringing with it the hostile Martians and their tripod war machines, those tuning in part-way through the broadcast did not realise it was a dramatization and believed a genuine invasion was underway, some of them panicking and fleeing their homes.
All four performers have good voices and diction, reflecting the radio style of the time, adapting their mannerisms as they shift between characters and eras in what becomes a very physical performance, the effect enhanced by simple but powerful lighting as they convey the power of radio upon an audience whose memory of the Great War was fresh and who were aware of rising tension in Europe.
While Welles certainly wanted to create an impression with The War of the Worlds it is unlikely he intended quite the response his broadcast achieved to those who heard it without context, but Rhum and Clay parallel the broadcast with a second story of those who now create content to be released for purposes of monetary gain without any form of governance or oversight.
While those scenes drag somewhat and could easily be tightened, they do serve a purpose in the overall narrative as the patterns repeat and the story is reinvented for new generations, propaganda without conscience sold as entertainment, the worlds of truth and fiction at war now as they have never been before with the Internet offering direct access to the minds of those ill prepared to tell the two apart.