William Golding's Lord of the Flies is an anguished meditation on the nature of evil. Golding, who fought in the Royal Navy during World War II, was acutely aware of the horrors of which humankind was capable when he wrote this novel, first published in 1954 -- a time when the English still considered their country the locus of all that was stable, good and civilized in the world, and also a time when the world was hyper-aware of the threat of nuclear war. He did not believe that the Germans had a particular propensity for savagery, but rather that this propensity existed in every human breast. So he created a scenario in which a group of British schoolboys -- roughly half of them literal choirboys -- are stranded on an unnamed island and forced to create their own society. Freed from the influence of the world they've left, they rapidly devolve into violent anarchy. See also: It's Smooth Sailing With The Unsinkable Molly Brown
In staging Nigel Williams's Lord of the Flies, a strong, clean adaptation of the book, the Denver Center Theatre Company has accomplished something rare: a production that will thrill and inform the intended teenage audience (violence, action, symbolism, lots of plot) while providing an absorbing evening for adults.
At the beginning, the boys are hyper-alive to the beauty of the island and see it as a paradise. They accept the leadership of the kindliest and most thoughtful boy among them, Ralph. He in turn protects -- at least most of the time -- vulnerable Piggy, who has asthma and poor vision. But choir leader Jack breaks off from the group, lures others to follow him, and sets up a hunt. Having managed to kill a wild pig, Jack and his followers bloody their faces, paint their bodies, perform wild dances and become more and more dangerous, until the saner souls on the island find their own certainties wavering and themselves in acute danger. Only Piggy, with his unique combination of courage, fussiness and conventionality, never loses his blinkered faith in society's norms. That faith costs him his life.
The play is laden with symbolism, but it never feels didactic, because it's powered by the swift forward movement of the plot. Piggy's glasses represent his thoughtful nature, but because they can help start a fire, they also become spoils of war. The conch shell that Ralph uses to call the boys together represents civilization, as do the meetings Piggy insists on. The pig killing is vicious, yet the animal's meat provides necessary nourishment. Mounted on a stake, the pig's head transforms in the boys' imaginations into the supernatural beast they fear lurks in the undergrowth. Jack plays on their paranoia, spreading the dangerous doctrine that the beast can take on any form -- including that of a small boy. We hear similar doctrines everywhere these days, perpetrated and skillfully manipulated by certain political factions. And while I watched, I was struck by how, with our government so deeply corrupt and beholden to special interests, there is something truly quaint in the notion that civilization -- law, culture, custom -- provides protection.
It's also telling that there are no girls on the island and the boys alone represent humankind. The female appears only obliquely, in Piggy's remembrance of his aunt's placid, homey wisdom. And then there's the pig: just a pig in the play, but in the novel a huge sow suckling her babies who is dispatched with frighteningly sexualized violence. Director Anthony Powell's production is supple, fast-moving and absorbing. The actors commit themselves wholeheartedly to the action, both physically and emotionally: racing down the aisles, leaping athletically from rock to rock, maintaining their intensity throughout. They are somewhat older than the fourteen-year-olds they portray, but convincingly young and impulsive-seeming. There's a standout performance from Matthew Gumley as Piggy -- seriously irritating sometimes, but also wise and disarming. Charlie Franklin is a fine Ralph, Gregory Isaac Stone an impressively villainous Jack, and Kurt Hellerich a sensitive Simon.
Since I saw the show this past weekend, in my mind I've been hearing over and over -- no doubt as an amulet against evil -- the heavenly Benjamin Britten lullaby, sung by a sweet-voiced boys' choir, with which Powell ends his first act: "O my dear heart, young Jesus sweet/Prepare thy cradle in my spirit/And I shall rock thee in my heart/And nevermore from thee depart."
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Lord of the Flies, presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through November 2 in the Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex. For ticket information, call 303-893-4100 or go to denvercenter.org.