Review: Lord of the Flies ~ theatre notes

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Review: Lord of the Flies

The Lord of the Flies, based on the novel by William Golding, adapted by Nigel Williams, directed by Bob Pavlich. La Trobe University Student Theatre @ Trades Hall, closed Sunday.

All of us of a certain age were forced to read William Golding's The Lord of the Flies at school, and dragged along to see Peter Brook's famous film (without doubt my first experience of Brook). I suppose it was considered excellent for the average adolescent to consider his (there are no girls in this story) innate savagery.


Watching it on stage in La Trobe University Student Theatre's very creditable production, it occurred to me that while the book says nothing about so-called "primitive" tribes - such societies have, after all, social tabus and courtesies of a complexity and strictness that rival Regency England - and maybe, beyond a few general platitudes, not much more about universal human nature, it says a lot about the savagery inherent in the European class system of the time. And, for all I know, now. Which is to say, it's most interesting as a social text if read as a savage critique of the civilisation it seems to be advocating.

In Golding's classic story, a group of English schoolboys survive a plane crash on a tropical island. In the course of the book, they rapidly descend from well-behaved public (ie private) schoolboys to murderous tribalism, thus demonstrating the thinness of the veneer that civilisation pastes on our barbarian selves.

The only force that holds back the primitive tyranny that beats in our blood is, according to Golding, the influence of wise and fair authority; a naval captain, for example. At its heart The Lord of the Flies is, essentially, a reactionary text, a cautionary fable about the necessity for patriarchal (preferably English) authority to prevent us all falling into the bloody mire of Original Sin.

Now, don't get me wrong. Anyone who has had anything to do with children (and who isn't blinded by sentimental ideas about childish innocence) knows that children are capable of a cruelty that is unmediated by an adult capacity for empathy, which is a quality that is, on the whole, a learned one. Children also have a limited capacity for foresight: they do not necessarily understand the connection between an act and its aftermath. This is why children charged with serious crimes are not tried as adults: they are considered - in my view, quite rightly - to have diminished responsibility for their actions. There's a lot of truth in Golding's portrayal of childish society.

But there's no escaping the, well, British Empire flavour of the story, or the questionable underlying assumptions about what constitutes both primitive and civilised behaviour. The book's virtues exist in the vividness of its characters and its writing. And yes, it's a fable, and so capable of many interpretations, many of which have been rehearsed in school essay after school essay.

It's a tribute to the commitment of the La Trobe University Student Theatre that they made me put aside my quibbles with the story. I even stopped wondering about Australian public school accents and the fact that a bunch of young women were playing prepubescent boys. Such, after all, is the magery of theatre when it works.

Student productions are often well worth a look: the tickets are cheap, the production standards are generally good and they often feature texts that are seldom done elsewhere. La Trobe, while lacking the considerable resources of the Victorian College of the Arts, put on The Lord of the Flies as part of an insanely ambitious double bill (the other half was Orson Welles' adaptation of Moby-Dick). And, from what I saw, they pulled it off.

Bob Pavlich's production features a minimal set - two scaffolds, a real pig's head, some back curtains and sparely used lighting. It's intelligently staged, with the mise en scene exploiting the height and breadth of the Trades Hall Ballroom. Using Nigel Williams's economical 1992 adaptation, which is briskly theatrical in a Brookian kind of way, the energy of the cast progressively generates the necessary willing suspension of disbelief to make the story wholly absorbing and, ultimately, moving.

7 comments:

Matthew said...

Did you hang around for Welles' Moby Dick? What a nutty little choice that was...

I was forced to study The Lord of the Flies, too, which just goes to show how little the school system has changed between your day and mine (not that I'm suggesting a sizable gap in years or anything...cough). My favourite take on the tale will always be that of Simpsons, which parodied Flies at length in an episode titled 'Das Bus'. A busload of school children get stranded on a desert island on the way to a Model United Nations session (oh, the irony). They use glasses to make fire, call meetings with a conch, and eventually their society breaks down when the stronger kids chase after 'the nerds'. ("Kill the dorks! Bash their butts!" "Run a-way!")

And it ends with one of the funniest pieces of voiceover narration, too:

"So the children learned how to function as a society, and eventually they were rescued by, oh, let's say Moe."

This comment was really rather irrelevant. I've been writing about bloody film festivals all day!

Alison Croggon said...

No, I didn't see the Moby-Dick, though I would have if I had had time. I don't know the text, and I love the novel. It was actually Moby-Dick Rehearsed which makes me think there was something meta-theatrical going on there.

As for the Simpsons - yeah, I remember that episode (I'm sure I've seen it three times). And are those fillums rotting your brain?

Matthew said...

3,112 words of rot, and counting.

sbs said...

Hello Alison, longtime reader, firsttime commenter. I just wanted to put my head round the door and say one thing about Golding's book, it's one of his central planks that the world beyond the island has descended into madness, as tokened by the ghastly descent of the charred parachutist, so the appearance of the peaked cap of Imperial authority at the end, though it brings the boys sharp to their senses, is far from an authorial stab at praising paternal governance per se, merely a statement of the boys' tribal allegiances. Phew, did I say all that in one breath? More power to you, greetings from the British Library.

Sylvia Drake said...

To add to sbs's comment--I read that book a very long time ago, but my recollection is that it was (at least according to mainstream interpretations) more to do with how thin and illusory the veneer of "civilization" is, no matter whose civilization we're talking about. (Although if you're reading it at age 12 or so, it's mostly about how kids are total bastards, and I think that's a valid interpretation too...)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi there sbs, nice to see you here! And hi Sylvia. Good points, of course - I'd actually forgotten about the parachutist, who doesn't turn up in the play and didn't obtrude in my rapid memory-refreshing skim of the book. And yes, you're aware that civilisation beyond the island is destroying itself in a way you clock is parallel to what's happening on the island.

Still and all, there are those sub-textual assumptions. All the Bibical references locate it in a rather Manichean universe of Good and Evil (or Right and Wrong) and the moral sense points to Original Sin. "Natives" (and women) were supposed to be closer to Original Sin because of their more primitive natures and the constant references to "savages" are a little jarring: civilisation is posited against this "savageness" and that buys into that colonial idea of the primitive, which I find deeply problematic. It's a book that's of its time, of course, and all this arguing doesn't mean that I don't think it's a good book...

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