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War of the Worlds, Warwick Arts Centre, Review


War of the Worlds, Warwick Arts Centre until Saturday, October 16

By Chris Arnot

From Row N the pre-war radio looked the size of a slightly scaled-down petrol pump. The wood-encased “wireless”, as they were called on this side of the Atlantic, was sited in a house somewhere in New Jersey. It had once transmitted the works of Welles and Wells – Orson Welles’s all-too-lifelike interpretation of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds.

The book was published in 1898, the chilling radio adaptation 40 years later. Yes, 1938 when Nazi Germany was already rampant and invasions were underway in central Europe.

But Americans, it seemed, had the threat of an invasion from much further afield brought vividly to life by Orson’s broadcast.

Never mind the Nazis; the Martians had landed. At least that was the illusion seemingly made “true” by the impressions of public service announcements with which the actor interrupted the flow of a work of fiction.

Cue widespread panic. Many terrified families fled their homes and headed for the hills. Apparently. There are doubts about the truth of that story. And the difficulty of truffling out the truth in the infinitely more complex multi-media world of the 21st century is at the core of the Rhum and Clay Theatre Company’s new take on an old work of science fiction.

The date is 2016. That bastion of truth-telling Donald trump is taking on Hillary Clinton for the American presidency. A British broadcaster, meanwhile, is in New Jersey to make a podcast. She’s visiting the family of a woman who told her just before her death that, as a child, she’d been abandoned by her panic-stricken parents on the night of Welles’s infamous broadcast.

At first the podcast-maker is made welcome. Less so as the questions in the quest for truth become more direct. Particularly hostile is the son of the family – a student of journalism who has designed a website full of lies. “It’s what people want to read,” he tells the British visitor.

The cast of four move swiftly around the stage, swapping roles and eras under the instruction, presumably, of “movement director” one Matt Wells who also takes on more than one role.

While the wooden wireless remains centre stage, we’re given a glare and blare of how Welles’s broadcast might have been conveyed today – fiercely flashing lights, thunderously menacing music and a hint of smoke. Once the smoke clears, we’re left with the troubling prospect of trying to discern the truth at a time when telling lies on-line are is far easier than dreaming up new interpretations of memorable works of fiction.