Like countless young people, I studied William Golding’s classic 1954 novel Lord of the Flies at high school. It had a profound effect on me. Decades later I have never forgotten a moving quote from the end of the book: “…Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”

Reading it again now, the book – which focuses on a group of privileged British school boys stranded on an isolated island when their plane crashes during a wartime evacuation – still has the same force: the inexorable building of tension as the division between Ralph and the envious, disruptive Jack grows, Ralph’s struggle to try and keep the boys working together and the fire alight so that passing ships might see them, the gradual descent into anarchy, and the heart-breaking loss from the savagery that ensues.

Little of that power, tension, shock and poignancy makes it to the stage in Kip Williams’s production for Sydney Theatre Company, which uses an adaptation by English playwright Nigel Williams, first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in England in 1995.

The cast of STC’s Lord of the Flies, 2019. Photograph © Zan Wimberley

Entering the auditorium, cast members in contemporary street wear (costumes by Marg Horwell) are already milling around on the dark, bare stage, which is open to the theatre walls, with wires and lights exposed (set design by Elizabeth Gadsby). As the production begins, the cast of 11 start pounding their hands while several run in a large circle, passing a toy plane to each other to portray the crash.

Williams uses a couple of scaffolding units to portray the mountains, while a rig with small strips of lighting descends from the flies, changing colour to suggest the ocean and the tropical forest that the boys must push their way through to get to the mountain and to hunt pigs. Later they turn blood red to accompany the bursts of frenzied violence (lighting by Alexander Berlage).

There’s also a large parachute for the fallen parachutist who the boys mistake for “the beast” they so fear. Other than that, everyday things are used: props chests, an upside-down stool to create the fire, with runners as the rocks they place around it. And of course, there’s the conch shell that Ralph (Mia Wasikowska), who is elected Chief, and the myopic, intelligent Piggy (Rahel Romahn) find, which is used to call the meetings.

Initially, it’s not the most inspiring set, but Williams uses it well, and it certainly becomes an energised space when the lighting strips illuminate the darkness, with James Brown’s pulsing, rhythmic sound design underscoring the growing tribalism and anarchy.

Contessa Treffone, Mark Paguio, Rahel Romahn and Daniel Monks in STC’s Lord of the Flies, 2019. Photo © Zan Wimberley

Williams has brought together a gender-blind, diverse group of young performers to play the boys to reflect on his view that the book is an exploration of toxic masculine culture. Writing in his program notes, he says: “In the absence of any adults, [the boys] play out ideas of leadership and power born of emulating their male role models from home.” Having girls playing boys is an attempt to drill down into that idea.

The casting conceit works fine; you quickly focus on the characters rather than on the actor’s gender, ethnicity or whether they are able-bodied. Whether Williams’ reading is the one you yourself bring to the book, the story certainly remains extremely relevant in its exploration of power, the cut-and-thrust between democracy and anarchy, and the thin veneer of civilisation.

However, the production doesn’t entirely fire. Where the book shows the rift between Jack and Ralph developing slowly, here the adaptation (which shifts a few events around), and the way Williams directs it, establish the aggression of Jack and his hunter followers far too early.

From the opening scenes they are shown to be unruly, undisciplined, bullying and determined to destabilise things, throwing the conch around like a football, and snarling in piggy-like snorts at Piggy so there’s nowhere to go, except louder. As a result there’s a lot of shouting, with much of the production unfolding at one heightened note. It’s much less frightening than seeing the division between the boys develop gradually, subtly, inevitably. Given the general fever pitch, it’s hard to get to know the characters, and therefore you don’t feel much emotion at what happens to them. Each cast member gives it their all, but the most powerful, believable performances come from Rahel Romahn as Piggy and Contessa Trefone as Jack. The production itself takes a long time to take off, and I never felt really moved, but it finally finds its force in the final scenes.

Lord of the Flies plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until August 24


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