Wednesday, March 16, 2016

'The Skull' at the Drayton Arms Theatre, 15th March 2016

Adapting Philip K Dick usually requires cutting edge special effects wizardry. The cinematic reworkings of his stories Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, They Can Remember it For You Wholesale and A Scanner Darkly are all visually stunning, relying on complex modelwork and/or CGI to translate Dick's dense, imaginative and philosophical prose to the screen.

LoneTree Theatre Project's The Skull makes to do with a disassembled clothes drying rack, a spraypainted Supersoaker and and a toy steering wheel. Dick's sprawling speculative futures of Martian colonies, time machines and tyrannical neo-religions successfully crammed onto a sparsely furnished room above a pub on the Old Brompton Road. 

The Skull is one of Dick's lesser known short stories, yet still encapsulates much of what makes him a science fiction titan. We open in the year 2152 and meet our Martian colonist and hunter protagonist Omar Conger (Itai Leigh). He's currently incarcerated in a reeducation centre; but promised a reprieve if he will travel 200 years back in time and assassinate 'the Founder' of the antiwar religious movement that's taken over the world. The only clue to his identity the future has is the Founder's weathered skull, reverently handed to Conger to guide him to his destiny.

In a crystal time machine and wielding a powerful 'Slem-gun' he's zapped back to 1950s Cooper Creek, Colorado. Unfortunately, with his beard, strange future accent and eccentric behaviour, the townspeople suspect him of being a bomb-wielding Communist spy. He wishes to escape, yet is determined to fulfil his mission of killing the mysterious man who set the whole dark future in motion.

If you've seen any time travel story in the last fifty years you can probably figure out where this yarn is heading. You have to bear in mind that on publication there wasn't a dearth of time travel fiction, the notion of temporal paradoxes still fertile and promising sci-fi territory. Despite this; Dick's exploration of the origins of religions, Red paranoia and the merits of pacifism remain incisive. And, obviously, the writing is top-notch:
"What action would not be futile, when a man could look upon his own aged, yellowed skull? Better they should enjoy their temporary lives, while they still had them to enjoy. A man who could hold his own skull in his hands would believe in few causes, few movements. Rather, he would preach the opposite..."
Smartly, LoneTree Theatre Project brings Dick's text to the forefront of their adaptation. The characters narrate their own actions and thoughts; the act of reading aloud Dick's words making the show feel, appropriately, like a parable. Given the text's preoccupations with Messiah-dom this is bang on the money, not to mention neatly papering over any problems with the sparse pound-shop props.

It's also pretty richly performed play. Supporting cast Gabriella Shillingford, Megan Blowey, Neo Mothola and Rory Keys, quickly delineate their many roles, making what could be a difficult to follow story easily comprehensible. Itai Leigh is a cut above, binding together a time traveller's snootiness, egotism and confidence that's undercut by the growing realisation of his destiny, aided by an Israeli accent that nicely conveys Conger's future dialect.

The only place the show really stumbles is in some unneeded comedy additions. When miming a trip in a flying car, the cast makes whizzy noises with the mouths and jerks left and right, and a chase scene is played for broad laughs. These moments are bizarrely out-of-place and belie a reluctance to treat Dick's writing with the sincerity it deserves. Sure, at times it's bit cheesy, but if you're doing a straight adaptation of early 50s science fiction then cheesy is part of the territory whether you like it or not.

It's not as if Dick is being entirely po-faced; there's a couple of decent gags in the short story - the best being a suspicion that Conger's beard indicates that he's trying to visually emulate Karl Marx, who one of the townspeople has seen in a book somewhere (even that is regarded with deep suspicion). 

Still, the added gags come uncomfortably close to laughing at Philip K Dick rather than with him, which feels a bit unfair. If his work sounds cliched and his twists obvious that's because he invented the cliches. These moments ultimately prevent the audience from fully engaging with the intellectual message of the text which, with its scepticism towards religion and musings on mortality, remains relevant.

It's refreshing seeing Philip K Dick on stage and I can't fault the company for their ambition, I just wish they'd cut the slapstick.


The Skull is at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 2nd April. Tickets here.

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