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(Stage Play written by Philip Ridley)

Philip Ridley is something of a Jack-of-all-trades and pretty much a master of most of what he attempts, since he has managed to make a name for himself as an award-winning film director, award-winning childrens author and award-winning playwright. I haven't read any of his childrens books but I've seen both of his feature films, The Reflecting Skin and The Passion of Darkly Noon, and now, I have seen one of his several stage plays - Apocalyptica. Although both the above films and this particular stage production are all shocking in their own particular ways, they do all share a theme which occurs in all of Ridley's work, and that theme is childhood.

As the writer (and not just director) on both of his impressive feature films, Ridley incorporates into their stories the effects of a less-than-perfect childhood. In Apocalyptica, he uses the perspective of a child (as he did in Reflecting Skin) to engage the audience. The play which ran for a short season in London's Hampstead Theatre at the beginning of the year (1998), tells the story of a boy caught in the midst of a civil war in an undefined (but probably Eastern European) country. He is traumatised by events and is only convinced to speak again after being joined in a ruined building by an array of other survivors - a young man and woman, a old woman and man and a middle-aged man. They try to console the boy and get him to speak by telling him stories and having him decide the conclusion to each of them. The stories are all fantasy tales - kings and queens in fantastic kingdoms, princes and princess, dragon and demons, wizards and witches - but each shares a central theme of conflict. Just how the young orphan resolves the conflict in each story becomes the central driving force behind the play.

In his attempts to pass comment, not judgement, on warfare and its impact on civilians, Philip Ridley has written a subtle (some might say slight) play which attempts to deal will complex issues in a simple manner. This doesn't always work and there is an overly familiar cycle that quickly establishes itself. One of the boy's companions begins a story, using the others as characters, sets up a conflict within the tale and turns to the boy for a resolution. The answer comes in the form of decisive aggression. Another of the refugees then begins the next tale and so on, and so on. Because of the repetative nature of the play, the audience can pretty well guess how the last act will conclude. By speaking about conflict, by voicing their anger, each of the refugees slowly learns how to deal with the trauma they have all experienced. It comes as no surprise then that the final story is finished by the boy in a peaceful fashion.

The handling of central idea is perhaps a little too awkward, but the matter-of-fact approach is clearly deliberate on the part of Ridley and is certainly consistent with his two feature films. What is less clear is just how the audience is supposed to judge the play. We learn nothing new about war and we get very little insight into how each of the (marvellously played) characters can deal with their own experiences after what little they have shared with the audience. The only 'message' that emerges is that if we talk about terrible experiences that in itself will make coping with them easier but may also help us come to terms the reasons for the conflict that spawns them in the first place. Whilst the writing may not be entirely convincing, everything else about the expressionist production - performances, make-up, design, etc. - is extremely effective and haunting.

Rob Dyer

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