Reviewed – 21st November 2018
“passion and individualism are the breath of life, and characters devoid of both, whether on stage or off, simply fail to engage”
Rats is set in a dystopian future, in which the majority of the world’s population has its ego suppressed at birth. As a disembodied voice tells us in the play’s opening moments, this frees the world from the ‘religion of humanism’ which has allowed passion and individualism to reign and create havoc for too long; thus making way for a more efficient and rational society. The play claims to explore what it means to be an individual in a world governed by technology, as well as whether or not individuality is, in fact, a desirable quality. At a time when the destructive power of Trump’s rampant narcissism is continually on display, and we spend more and more time at some form of technological interface, these questions could not be more pertinent. Unfortunately however, Gaël van den Bossche’s play fails truly to wrestle with these ideas, giving them only the most superficial treatment, and we are thus left unchallenged, and none the wiser.
Part of the problem here is the wealth of the dystopian back catalogue. From 1984 and Brave New World, right up until Charlie Brooker’s superb Black Mirror series, we are a culturally literate society when it comes to bleak future forecasting. Huxley was on to the idea of an embryonically-engineered drone underclass in 1931, and Rats failed to explore new territory in this regard. In addition, one of the reasons why Black Mirror was as successful as it was, was the brilliance with which the series made use of its medium, and this was another area in which Rats failed to deliver. Dystopian drama on the stage is more of an unknown, and Rats would have benefited from a big dose of theatrical invention, particularly in terms of movement. The script cried out for a more surreal approach, and a heightened physical language would have been helpful to the actors.
Despite some lovely work from Charlotte Bloomsbury as Katy, the characters failed to lift off the page, which made it difficult to invest in their plight. This was, of course, made doubly difficult by the monotonous nature of the ego-less mind, but it was telling that George (David Clayton) frequently sounded as artificial as his robotic fellows. This was in no small part owing to the fact that the moments of human interaction in the play all derived from the immediate situation. Much of the terror/wonder of the human mind lies in its imagination – our transcendent ability as a species – and there was very little of that in evidence, other than the self-confessedly terrible poetry Lynn (Hayley Osborne) eventually shares. The audience would have benefited from seeing the fully human characters temporarily freed from the shackles of their circumstances; it therefore seemed an extraordinary choice not to play out George and Lynn’s drunken evening, in which we could finally have seen the two of them in all their messy ego-driven glory.
Perhaps this play did ultimately answer one of the questions it purported to ask: passion and individualism are the breath of life, and characters devoid of both, whether on stage or off, simply fail to engage.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Etcetera Theatre until 25th November
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: