William Golding’s Lord of the Flies has become a staple of the GCSE curriculum and unlike with the outcry against American literature, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, being removed from the syllabus, I am yet to find a person – in particular a young person actually in the throes of studying it – who can testify to enjoying studying it. The problem with Lord of the Flies is not so much with the book itself which certainly could be enjoyed by many a 9 – 12 year old, but the fact that it is given to 15 and 16 year olds in the name of ‘engaging them’. Nine times out of ten it fails to do so because it is far too simplistic in both storyline and as something to analyse for teenagers already drinking, having sex and anticipating driving a car.
On the surface, Life Raft, first written by Georg Kaiser in 1945 under the title The Raft of Medusa and adapted this year by Fin Kennedy for the Bristol Old Vic, shares much in common with Lord of Flies. Only it also doesn’t. For whilst both are about a group of young people stranded on island/boat and conclude with one of the group not making it home (no spoilers in this review!), Life Raft is far more complex, subtle and genuinely unsettling than Golding’s work and, in being so, would be a more interesting and appropriate text to be studied in schools.
As it happens, in this production many of the children on stage are actually several years younger than the GCSE students currently sat forlornly smacking themselves in the head with LOTF, and perform to a spectacularly high standard. It’s hard to review productions with children acting in them without it sounding like you are just being nice because they are children, but I can honestly say that the quality of this production was much higher than many I have seen acted by people of age 30 and above – a feature notable in many other Old Vic Young Company productions such as The Light Burns Blue and Wodwo.
Two aspects of Life Raft really stood out, one was the choice to make each character simultaneously subtly flawed and ultimately redeemable. This is not a script in which we have Goodies and Baddies, the bullies and the bullied. Instead at different points all the characters can be identified with and then, in an instant, distanced from. The constantly shifting sympathies of the audience towards realistically multidimensional characters is what gives Life Raft an edge often missing in allegorical stories involving childhood.
The other aspect was its overall lack of clarity with regards to narrative (bear with me, because in this case it’s a good thing). On hearing it was written in 1945 and seeing a group of children on a journey disrupted by falling bombs, the obvious assumption to make is that we’re witnessing the trip of some WWII evacuees. However, without fanfare, this belief is disrupted about half way through when a few stray facts introduce the idea that this is actually set in an ambiguous dystopian reality. In this regard, Life Raft immediately reminds me of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, in which a group of young adults are thrown together through circumstances far more insidious than a war. The image of the black swans rising like angels against the fading sky is hauntingly beautiful and the decision to only allude to the setting of the story is bold and very successful. Indeed, the production felt strongest when at its most abstract, particularly during a techno dance scene that came out of nowhere and had the potential to be a very effective end to the entire play.
Especially at a time when moral decisions regarding people fleeing in boats is potently relevant, there is much to take from Life Raft in terms of allegory, metaphor and message. However, the production itself constantly avoids providing easy answers. The characters, plot and dilemmas all slip and morph like pools of mercury, refusing even to provide an accurate reflection of the faces staring directly into it.