The Flies (Bunker Theatre)

The Flies (Bunker Theatre, London, until July 6th)

A buzz of excitement has surrounded the 10th anniversary revival of Exchange Theatre’s innovative and revolutionary production of Sartre’s The Flies at the Bunker Theatre this summer.

There is every reason for this eager anticipation: the production put Exchange Theatre firmly on the map and won awards as well as being a lifebelt for the struggling fringe company, while Exchange itself is renowned for its creativity, its use of multi-cultural and minority casts and a rebellious streak of which Sartre himself would have been proud.

Additionally at the Bunker the play is being presented in English and in French on alternate weeks, which one senses the energetic, multi-lingual cast will take in its stride.

Whether you see The Flies or Les Mouches the question must be does it live up to all the hype? Does it speak as loudly and as clearly as it did when Sartre wrote it or indeed as it did when it became Exchange’s first big hit 10 years ago?

A very brief answer to that question is “No.” It is a very hard slog, devoid of any true engagement or contemporary resonance, seldom rising above the level of banal and soporific. Taking Sartre’s theme completely out of context means there are tedious speeches and bewildering action that doesn’t open up much other than yawning mouths.

Sartre’s 1943 original was an update of the Greek myth about Electra and Orestes, a political allegory inspired by the Nazi occupation of France and containing an underlying theme of the philosopher’s existentialist ideas; it is unlikely even then that people were rolling in the aisles or thinking they were going to see the equivalent of a Whitehall farce or even coming away feeling they had completely understood all its themes and facets. Today, a tighter translation is needed for a start as it’s all so dull to begin with and if there is an insistence on making it appurtenant to modern times then at least have the guts to work it all out first rather than just labelling it “experimental.”

A core question is to what extent people can be free and self-respecting when living under an evil oppressive dictator. There may indeed be ways in which that idea could be made relevant in today’s international political landscape but Exchange don’t go there, which is a missed opportunity.

Another key theme – which Exchange picks up particularly – is the use of propaganda (fake news, we might call it today) in creating a climate of powerlessness and the need for ordinary people to rise up against it. But it isn’t easy to see how you can say so definitively that, for instance, the Nazi occupation has parallels to Brexit today. Perhaps 10 years ago there might have been an obvious reference to wepaons of mass destruction to act as the trellis on which a modern idea could grow and develop, but it really isn’t enough for a company to try and create a link just by telling us there is one and not backing it up in any way with a revised text, clearly drawn characterisation and thoughtful production values.

The stage is set as for an Orwellian thriller, Fascist flags resembling a Big Brother eye, with computers and other technology lying in piles, broken and useless – striking design by Ninon Fandre even if it starts to feel a bit too messy for no good purpose. Yet TV screens are still able to transmit propaganda and nightmare visions to a population who worship the message and messenger. They are filled with remorse following the murder of their former king Agammemnon, yet did nothing to prevent it and are thus tormented by swarms of flies by the bullying gods as they are constantly fed lies by the new king which only add to their sense of guilt.

What follows is a commendably faithful retelling of Sartre’s version of the Greek tragedy, but that doesn’t mean it is a work of artistic genius or even that watchable. It is often messy and noisy, with songs that never quite fit; yet there is a powerful soundtrack and sound effects performed by Leo Elso, Billy Boguard & Thomas Broda, written by Mauritian grunge rock band A Riot In Heaven, which all too often seem completely out of place. The very few songs are not performed that well by the cast, already stretched by all the ideas being thrown around; frankly it just becomes a racket which leaves the audience wincing and certainly it fails to live up to its “rock musical” description..

There’s a terrific performance by Meena Rayann as the sharp revolutionary Electra (though there’s a suspicion that she has had an uphill struggle trying to work out what is required of her in characterisation, and the director must be to blame for that) and it’s always a disappointment in the play itself that she chickens out of rebellion and freedom, preferring the chains of tyrannical conformity. Her engaging portrayal deserves a better ending, but she works well with Samy Elkhatib (a tad too one-dimensional) as the would-be redeemer of his people, Orestes, the only character to discover his true freedom.

David Furlong, the co-founder of Exchange Theatre and who directs here, also plays the invader king Aegisthus, who with his collaborator wife Clytemnestra (Fanny Dulin) keeps the remorse myth alive. He is good as the all too believable villain, standing against liberty and human values by promoting guilt and fear.

Raul Fernandes is devilish as Jupiter, not so much the Roman bringer of jollity but more an immoral, sardonic bully, god of lies, flies and silver-tongued deceit.

But the good bits are outweighed and battered into retreat by lack of clear vision for the production, with those actors who try to make something of their roles seemingly held back by the need for words and actions to drip with symbolism and significance.

There is much that is unintentionally laughable. In one scene of peculiar eccentricity the furies – the goddesses of remorse – arrive to torment Orestes and Electra, looking like rejects from a Weimar cabaret and behaving like the hyenas in The Lion King. Depending on your point of view this is either toe-curlingly embarrassing or an artistic decision that will take on an idiosyncratic cult status.

The Flies is, frankly, all very heavy-going with little by way of gathering momentum and one feels that the intention and artistic integrity of Exchange is more to be applauded than the execution of this particular piece.

Existential angst isn’t everybody’s tasse de thé and there will be many who are aroused by the contemporary resonance with fake news, Brexit and imposed decisions by lawmakers while others allow it all to fly au-dessus de leurs têtes.

David Guest

Image: Camille Dufrénoy

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub