About to embark on a national tour with their critically acclaimed production of The War of the Worlds, Rhum and Clay’s Matthew Wells and Julian Spooner tell us to expect laughter, visual thrills and even modern technology in their retelling of the ultimate alien invasion story.
When HG Wells published his classic sci-fi novel back in 1898 it’s doubtful he would have imagined his work being performed on stage over a century later. And certainly not in a production that includes a podcast. Although I suppose he might have guessed at ‘Podcast’ being the collective modern name given to the strange alien beings of his story; the Extra Terrestrials that invaded leafy Surrey and saw humans as ‘edible ants’. But there you go. Fact, it would appear, is indeed often stranger than fiction.
And our fascination with the story shows no sign of abating. From a historic radio play to Jeff Wayne’s concept album of the 1970s, several movie versions and now even an ‘interactive experience’, Herbert Wells certainly wrote an enduring belter.
“We like to take source material and do with it what we will. We thought this wonderful sci-fi, along with the reaction to the radio broadcast, was a beautiful combination to take and use as a metaphor for fake news and to put our own spin on,” Co-Artistic Director of Rhum and Clay Matthew Wells explains.
Ah yes. The infamous radio play broadcast. For the uninitiated, this was the Orson Welles version that on airing in 1938 saw America panicking that there really had been an alien invasion in New Jersey.
“It’s almost a show about The War of the Worlds,” says Matthew’s fellow Artistic Director Julian Spooner, picking up the baton.
“We use the broadcast to ask why we believed in stories, including of alien invasion, and take a through line to the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election in the United States.”
A testament to the initial story, Matthew and Julian (who also appear in the production) have created a show that has been so highly acclaimed that its forthcoming tour marks its third outing. Following on from a sold-out run at London’s New Diorama Theatre and being a smash-hit at the Edinburgh Festival last summer, their The War of the Worlds homes in on the here and now’s climate of disinformation. Cleverly, it reinvents the story to the point of making it feel fresh and relevant, while retaining all the suspense and mystery of the original.
“We have confusion about what’s real and not real today,” observes Matthew. “The truth feels like it’s a matter of perspective rather than fact. Our version is about that line between truth and fiction.
“We like to take big ideas and make them accessible, without diluting anything, and we love to tell a good story. Everyone loves an alien invasion, but creatively we’ve woven in a modern day narrative about a podcaster and there is a fizzing political current going through it.
“We also make very physical and very visual work. A lot of influences are closer to cinema, so it’s very much alive. And there’s an award-winning sound score that runs through the whole thing. There’s something in there for everyone.”
The reviews from critics and feedback from theatregoers back him up on this, with both groups confirming that the show and its performers deliver ‘plenty of theatrical punches.’
“It’s very funny and entertaining and theatrical,” agrees Julian, “Very physical – we are known for our physical approach – but it really is multi-layered.”
Talking of physical, I suggest that with a busy tour mapped out it’s just as well that their energy levels are zippy. They reply, politely, that I have it back to front; it is actually touring and new audiences that are their virtual pep pills.
“We love telling stories in a visual way and really surprising audiences, but we also love touring. Audiences in Brazil respond differently to audiences in Kazakhstan depending on what resonates with them. That really energises us,” says Matthew.
This tour also marks a welcome milestone for the duo, as it sees Rhum and Clay’s work moving from small-scale to mid-scale theatres like New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich.
“Being booked by bigger theatres has allowed us to develop the show’s production values. It’s lovely to keep adding different layers. That’s a real privilege,” Matthew is clearly chuffed.
“And we have never been to the theatres on this tour schedule as a company before, so that is really exciting,” Matthew adds.
Something else they were excited by was the appointment of playwright Isley Lynn to the project.
“Sci-fi is a very male dominated genre so we wanted to find a female writer to counteract that. She is a wonderful writer and has given the piece a unique perspective,” says Matthew.
“And when you’re doing a show about fake news and touching on this era of Donald Trump a female voice is incredibly important within that conversation,” adds Julian.
“She also brought a really beautiful human touch to the story and creates very believable characters. Not just intellectually stimulating and conceptually interesting, but something that really takes people on a ride and gets them to engage and believe in the characters.”
On the subject of believability, what do they reckon: did Wells pre-date fact; is there anything out there?
“I’ve absolutely no idea and I’m totally happy with that!” Matthew laughs.
Julian ponders a while longer before saying: “On a mathematical level there has to be a life form of something, but I wouldn’t say that it was anything that resembles us.”
Little green men running amok in Deep Space aside, here on planet Earth it sounds like they’ve got a hit on their hands. To misquote ET, arguably the most famous alien of modern times, don’t phone home. Phone the box office instead.
Matthew and Julian on the importance of telling stories through theatre:
“It’s the most basic human desire to communicate something that has happened – to tell a story. That ability to communicate a story allows us to understand a different point of view and to empathise with people with different experiences to our own. Going to the theatre, everyone sits together and experiences something collectively. I used to work for a children’s charity, entertaining children who were very sick. Children are brutal in their honesty, but they will also unashamedly dive into a world and don’t have the baggage that adults do. That stands you in good stead. It’s very difficult for schools to please everyone but I think there is a lot to be said for art for art’s sake – the benefits of just listening to a story, for instance. Just hearing a different perspective makes you all the better for it. Children looking at a work of art, even the classics, are going to have a unique perspective on it and that’s critical thinking.”
“Things like Youth Theatre and telling stories are so important. It’s not even quantitative – a few like me go on to do professional work [in theatre], but it’s not about that. It’s about community. Youth Theatre groups bring lots of kids from all different backgrounds into a room together to explore stories and drama. It is equalizing and therefore powerful. It is a massive exercising of the muscle of empathy; developing interests in other people and what it is to be human from a young age. And if we don’t have kids engaging in theatre then the audience for it will simply die out. Doing stuff like youth theatre really gives you an appreciation of theatre.”