• Lord of the Flies. Photo: Mark Gambino
    Lord of the Flies. Photo: Mark Gambino

New Adventures: Lord of the Flies
Arts Centre Melbourne, 5 April

There was palpable excitement in the audience at the opening night of Lord of the Flies, choreographed by Scott Ambler and co-directed by Ambler and Matthew Bourne. Industrial noise billowed out from the set along with steam, heightening the sense of expectation. After all, William Golding's grim novel of the descent into savagery of a group of stranded schoolboys has gone into the cultural subconscious, while Matthew Bourne's accessible narrative ballets, most notably his all male Swan Lake, have made him into one of the most popular choreographers of recent times. These are productions which unashamedly go out to tell a story, entertain, and pack an emotional punch, engaging directly with audiences.

The opening scene of serried ranks of uniformed schoolboys marching in formation in the half light of a derelict theatre does not disappoint. What follows is a close retelling of the novel's grim depiction of the boys' rapid descent into savagery, barbarism and gang like tribalism. The horsing around of the earlier scenes rapidly gives way to animal frenzy and a loss of individual humanity within the group. In this state killing and "sacrifice" of the scapegoat outsider becomes unquestioned. 

How successful was this adaptation? It was certainly a stark reminder of how deeply unpleasant and upsetting Golding's text is. The claustrophobic sense of isolation, the battle for power, the sense of pervading threat and fear and the acceptance of power to combat that fear, the terrible temptation of being told what to do and thus be absolved of all responsibility for your actions as part of a group (the temptation of all ideological totalitarian movements religious or political), the bullying, scapegoating, the rapid crumbling  of civilization - all were starkly and quite literally portrayed.

Choreographically, much of the action consists of high impact high energy group dances, the strength of which lies in their rawness. As the ferocious Jack (Daniel Wright) gains ascendancy over Ralph (Dominic North) there is increasingly no room for dissent - you are with us, one of us, or you are dead. Accordingly Lord of the Flies is largely an ensemble piece, and therein lies both its strength and its weakness. 

Strength because the ensemble of 23 local boys impressed with their commitment, professionalism and raw energy. The use of local boys and young men (aged 10 to 25), all of them selected through months of community workshops, alongside several members of Matthew Bourne's company New Adventures, was a great concept and the strongest element of the work. And having so many boys, most with no prior dance training, dancing and performing so powerfully on stage was in itself a great achievement and an amazing experience for all concerned. 

Weakness because almost inevitably the choreography was not always sufficiently compelling, somewhat disappointingly so in terms of the leads who were scarcely challenged in terms of their abilities. Also at times there was simply too much for too many going on on stage. It is the quieter solo moments which were most memorable, such as when Simon (Patrick Weir) faces the Lord of the Flies (aka the Pig's Head which has become a totem for Jack's tribe) in a hallucinatory sequence, or when Piggy (Luke Murphy) stumbles around blindly in search of his stolen glasses. There are more such moments in the second act making it more successful theatrically than the first, even though these moments and the spaces for introspection are still rare. 

While choreographically and theatrically this production has its shortcomings, what is undeniably good about it is the impact it has on its performers and audiences. It is, if nothing else, a timely reminder of how much we have to lose if we surrender to groupthink.

Terry Davies's score was interesting but suffered somewhat from being too loud - it would have had more impact if we could hear it better. Lighting, set design and soundscape were all in tune in creating the menacing enclosed atmosphere of the story.


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