Les Mouches (The Flies) at Bunker Theatre – Theatre Review
This was my first visit to the Bunker Theatre, which is quietly tucked away adjacent to Menier Chocolate Factory and very intimate. The theatre is located at the further end of London Bridge past Borough Market in the direction of Borough tube station. The theatre is currently playing the Exchange Theatre production of Les Mouches by Jean-Paul Sartre and its unique selling point is that the play alternates between French and English on different weeks.
This Exchange Theatre production had previously been nominated for two off West End awards. It is directed by David Furlong and is currently celebrating its ten-year anniversary hence this revival. The play was termed to be a rock opera and there were musicians on stage, being the Mauritian band A Riot in Heaven, but it seemed to be a mish mash of modern times, with tv screens, interspersed with historical times.
I watched the French version of the play, of course, to attempt to understand Sartre’s prose in his native language. I was not familiar with this play, but my companion was able to fill in the gaps for me which was necessary as the production did not explain very much by way of background. My initial impressions were that the play would be quite bleak seeing as Sartre is renowned for existentialism and philosophical debates.
Les Mouches is in fact based on the Greek mythology involving Electra and her brother Orestes. The play was originally written by Sartre in 1943 during the period of Nazi occupation in France and is therefore reflective of those times. I had previously watched the play Electra with the brilliant Kristin Scott Thomas and so I was interested to see how this interpretation of the tale would unfold.
The play commences in the town of Argos which is in a prolonged state of mourning following the assassination of King Agamemnon, Electra and Orestes’ father. The new king Aegisthus is effectively oppressing the citizens and wishing for them to submit to his will.
Orestes is being pursued by the God Jupiter, who is vexed by Orestes’ exercise of free will and unwillingness to conform, even after murdering his mother. As Orestes remains free, he is therefore outside of Jupiter’s control. There are obvious parallels therefore to the levels of power and dynamics in the situation between the king and the citizens and the gods and the humans. A central theme that pervades the play is that sense of manipulation, death and power struggles.
The setting of the stage itself reflects the brooding themes as it is fairly sparse. Lots of monitors and a podium were also present at the perimeter of the stage and so at times could feel claustrophobic as the actors were forced to use limited space in the centre of the stage. These elements did make the play seem like a mise en abîme at times.
There were moments where the play was quite simply inaudible where the actors were delivering their lines to the side of the stage where the audience was not present. However, the overall sense of grief and conforming to public expectations for the characters was conveyed well.
Meena Rayann who plays Electra delivers a powerful performance. She exhibits Electra’s emotional state perfectly fluctuating between the initial rebelliousness against being compelled to conform and wishing to avenge her father’s death to later being frightened, after Orestes’ murderous return, and so ultimately conforms to Jupiter’s delight.
Jupiter’s performance reminded me of one of the charming demons from the tv series Charmed. This portrayal of Jupiter is at times understanding like a father figure but by the same token very often manipulating and vengeful. He is quite often pulling the strings of the other characters like pawns and wreaking revenge by unleashing the flies to provoke guilt.
Indeed, his assistants, the Furies, seemed like they were in a rock band and a symbol of the decay of the city with their over the top attempts at torture within a dream sequence involving Electra.
Oreste’s travelling companion was wooden and so I couldn’t completely understand the nature of their role as it seemed surplus to requirements. Indeed, it is rather revealing that it is Samy Elkhatin’s, as Orestes, professional debut. This does seem to align to the fact that there were often lines missed by him and his performance for the most part seemed rather stilted to me.
Having the live band, on stage, was jarring at times and mainly inconsistent with the setting although the stage with the monitors did seem reminiscent of the novel, 1984, with its concept of thought police! Equally, at times, during the new king’s speeches, the live band made it feel akin to a concert for a superstar like Freddie Mercury hypnotising his subjects by song! The band’s rock music seemed to be an attempt to describe the emotions and the sense of the anger of the Gods as the flies descended. This might have worked for a different production but ultimately felt quite messy here.
There are some light hearted moments in this production amongst its existentialist themes but it did leave me wanting to read the original Sartre play to explore the rich themes further.
Would I recommend watching the play? I would recommend watching the French version, if you can, if you are a Francophile and have watched other Exchange Theatre performances. Also, if you would be interested in watching a deconstructed version of this Sartre play then this production may also be for you. Overall, the performance by the actress playing Electra is sufficient for me to recommend the play.
The additional bonus is that the theatre is just around the corner from Flat Iron Square. So, I was able to return to the brilliant Portuguese Bar Duoro for tapas and a nata or two to end the night and I would recommend visiting!
Les Mouches is still showing at the Bunker Theatre until 6 July 2019