Lyndsey Turner has directed two of the most electric productions in recent weeks. Her take on Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Old Vic is exquisite, and now, at Theatre Royal Stratford East, her version of After the End by Utopia writer Dennis Kelly is jet black, chilling and devastating – and yes, it’s absolutely worth seeing.
Those who have seen the OV production will note the parallels: a single monochrome setting for the most part, and what was orange in A Number is now a stale yellow in Peter McKintosh’s After the End set – a colour not far off Marc Munden’s Utopia visuals which made the cruelly cancelled thriller a cult classic.
And there’s a lot of it in the space of 95 minutes. Locked in a nuclear fallout shelter, it isn’t long before Louise (The Son’s Amaka Okafor) and her colleague Mark (Nick Blood of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) are at each other’s throats. The idea of society’s laws and standards no longer applying when society itself ceases to exist is, of course, not a new concept in apocalyptic dramas – it’s often what makes them interesting, after all. How do they cope with their new environment, with the trauma, with each other?
I don’t need to tell you how two people being trapped inside for a prolonged period of time as they come to terms with a public health crisis is relevant to current events, do I?
As narratives fall apart, Mark, with his fingers like pincers, rushes to grasp his new situation. He’s a violent misogynist, tonally ignorant and what people today would consider an ‘incel’ – in other words, a male who deems himself an ‘involuntary celibate’ incapable of attracting a female sexual partner. Blood is utterly haunting in his portrayal of a softly spoken, calculating menace who considers every one of his movements at the slowest possible pace.
Meanwhile Louise desperately tries to establish meaning, respect and boundaries – as much as one can within the confines of a nuclear fallout shelter. Every false step in trying to navigate the creepy characteristics of Mark only leads to abuse and further manipulation, as he uses sympathy and the withholding of food to coerce and control her.
Such degradation eventually leads to a power shift in Louise’s favour, the “I could really hurt you” line previously uttered by Mark delivered once again with sinister effect. The breakdown of her character is so tightly and sensitively performed by Okafor, and when the story progresses to the ‘after the end’ section of the play – the details of which I shall obviously keep vague for the prevention of spoilers – we see Louise ask Mark if, after all the trauma, she is the same person as she was before. This is despite her revealing that she now has to ‘act’ her old persona before all of the chaos unfolded. The crushing impact of trauma on our psyche and identities is delicately explored by Okafor, and the result is so incredibly thought-provoking.
Make no mistake: this is not a play to be ‘enjoyed’, per se. Tim Lutkin’s minimalist lighting design, through two small lights on the walls of the bunker, makes the atmosphere claustrophobic and queasy, and the droning music from Tingying Dong leaves us permanently on edge. At the end of the day – or should I say, world – we’re watching a two-hander about the breakdown of the human psyche, and while for some it may prove to nauseating, it truly is exceptional theatre.
After the End is now playing at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 26 March.
Relaxed environment, BSL interpreted, captioned and audio described performances are taking place on 19, 24, 25 and 26 March respectively.
Production Images: The Other Richard.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘After the End’ for free in exchange for a review of the press performance. I did not receive payment for this article, and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.