Review: ★★★★ Unexploded Ordnances, The Barbican Centre

American performance duo Split Britches’ latest show Unexploded Ordnances is part theatre, part lecture and part discussion panel, but mostly a rather absurd and thought-provoking piece of art about ageing and our anxieties.

In The Situation Room, an hour away from Doomsday, actresses Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver take on the Dr Strangelove-inspired characters of the General and the President.

The General asks the audience to set timers on their phones for 59 minutes from now. The President assembles a Council of Elders from the audience and sits them down in the conference-style circle of tables on stage, to discuss what is on their mind.

The evening, which sometimes feels more like a work of performance art than a classical play, is quite fragmented; with song, movement, scenes and discussions all intertwined, the coherence is sometimes a little lost. What is clear, however, is that it is a commentary on a multitude of current-day issues. The three big screens on the back wall of the stage show maps and airplanes, and often the sounds of helicopters can be heard. We are at war, and the end of the world is nigh… Or is it just the end of our lives? Or the show?

Some parts of the performance occur in a fascinating limbo between reality and fiction. One or two elders in the council are clearly confused as to whether it is Lois Weaver or the President who is asking them questions, and the scene in which an audience member is asked to participate in the acting is truly confusing – which could either be thanks to this particular woman’s excellent acting skills or the set-up of the scene. We’ll never know.

The piece also strikes a clever balance between audience engagement and rehearsed scenes. The presence of a very sharp 82-year-old woman in the Council of Elders on press night was a great addition to the discussion. This is the sort of play that will have a different look every night, but will never become completely arbitrary because of its script.

At the end of the day, Unexploded Ordnances is a highly interesting piece of theatre; one which captivates not so much by its narrative, but by its ability to keep itself provoking and surprising. For the younger generation, some of the references (not in the least the Dr Strangelove ones) and issues at hand (about faltering health and the prospect of death) might be a little too far away to remember or relate to. The reading out of audience members’ ‘unexploded ordnances’ (or unexplored desires) at the end is a moment of communal recognition, however. Regardless of age, Unexploded Ordnances is an intriguing watch.



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