Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Count on the British for a nasty opinion of human nature. From novels such as J.G. Ballard’s Crash and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange to Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom, Francis Bacon’s sadomasochistic paintings, and most of Harold Pinter, a lot of English artists serve up deviant behavior as an analog of what’s rotten inside us all. (Even Neil LaBute now premieres his new plays in London.) “What brave candor!” hail the critics. These works pose as solemn studies of the Way Things Really Are, but they remind me of weird little boys who pick the wings off flies.

Speaking of boys (and flies), here comes Rorschach Theatre’s take on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the epitome of the British shock genre and subject of so many high school literary autopsies. Our teachers stressed the universality of Golding’s prepsters, who go native and then savage after their plane crashes on a tropical island. But Rorschach’s new theatrical production (using Nigel Williams’ dramatic adaptation of the book) shows both the strain and the provinciality of Golding’s vision. Although Rorschach stages Lord as a beautifully choreographed hurricane of emotion, this play says more about a theatrical company’s skill than about the human condition.

A nomadic company, Rorschach is working this time in Calvary Methodist Church’s Guild Hall, an evocative 1905 building with whitewashed walls, high vaulted ceilings of dark oak, and a towering choir loft below which Matt Soule has designed a set that aptly looks and works like building blocks. (You wish for a minute that there could be candles everywhere, but lighting designer Adam Magazine uses fire-glow backlighting and white-hot spots to fine, sinister effect.)

Of the boys, Ralph (Hugh T. Owen) enters first, socks carefully tucked inside the shoes he’s carrying. His optimism and self-discipline are still intact after the crash—in front of the worried Piggy (Jason W. Gerace), Ralph does a few somersaults and a handstand. “It’ll be like it doesn’t matter!” he says sweetly. “We’ll do what we like!” He has a school’s-out attitude, looking forward to a little vacation in paradise before the rescuers arrive.

As the other boys straggle in—led by Jack (Jason Stiles), a prissy and snobby choir prefect—Ralph declares himself “chief.” But the group makes decisions by mob rule, thrusting their fists in the air and poking fun at skeptics. The boys’ fierce enthusiasm has a frightening and maniacal edge. They run up to the choir loft like the menacing velociraptors from Jurassic Park.

Soon, some in the group sense that the island has an evil presence, which they name the Beast. The boys fall into doves and hawks on the issue: Some just want to get along; the others talk up increased defense. The hawks (led by a will-to-power Jack) sharpen spears and go on a raid, while the bleeding hearts (clutched around Ralph) brood and sleep in their makeshift shelter. Golding uses their split to embody his big themes—masculine vs. feminine, Nietzsche vs. Gandhi, fascist coercion vs. the democratic kind. When Jack’s raiders kill a pig and smear its blood on their faces before setting its head on a pike, not even the Mahatma himself would stand a chance against them.

Grady Weatherford directs the cast smartly. The boys go from chaos to action like a swarm of bees, swirling with collective intelligence. Weatherford also sets the dialogue speed at rapid-fire, so that the arguments crescendo into consensus and then crumble into silence. Brian Keating’s sound design complements with a ghostly rumbling, perhaps drums or a heartbeat. And Ivania Stack’s wonderful costuming takes Jack, for example, from angelic choirboy to early Adam Ant—which is frightening in several ways.

The splendidly cast players also look so very British: Their pasty faces seem right out of a month cramming for A-levels. Standouts include Stiles’ Jack, whose upper-class sense of entitlement turns convincingly monstrous, and his right-hand man, Roger (Wyatt Fenner), who reminds you of that sneering punk in gym class you knew would grow up to be a psychopath. As Ralph, Owen could pass for movie star Ben Chaplin’s younger brother. He alternates between touching openness and being clenched from his follicles on down. Owen doesn’t quite pull off this difficult, central role; but the fault is the play’s rather than his.

Williams’ script itself is the first problem of this Lord: It leaves out too much plot and context from the novel. We don’t feel how idyllic the island first seems to the boys, in contrast to the hell they make of it. Other details are inscrutable: the dead pilot who hangs for a while at the top of the stage; why the boys were sent away from the world war that’s raging back home; the inner demons that come out of Simon (piercingly played by Karl Miller) as, a la Tom Hanks and Wilson in Castaway, he has a heart-to-heart with the pig head.

In the book, the boys’ cruelty is mirrored by the army that comes to rescue them, so that we get Golding’s point that this fable isn’t just something for the tabloids. At the end of the play, though, the soldiers just make the boys form a line, clucking their disapproval at all the untucked shirttails.

And how relevant can a moral parable be when it’s about adolescent boys, anyway? Lord of the Flies shocked the conformist ’50s and a Britain preoccupied with how fit its next generation was for cultural superiority; today, we assume the worst about kids. Golding’s book might echo Defoe and Henry James, but on its own it’s a dead end. This becomes apparent in Williams’ second act, which devolves into a somewhat tedious sequence of push and shove in which the only suspense concerns who will be the next human sacrifice.

But maybe the climate is right for Lord of the Flies to make a comeback. It’s a deeply conservative work about the fragility of civilization and the need for a heavy hand to enforce it—nice bedtime reading for, say, a certain attorney general. And while postmodern thinking has long pooh-poohed the very existence of “human nature,” postmodernism itself now teeters with uncertainty. Not many companies could make a better case for Golding’s story than Rorschach has. The effect is rousing, assaultive, depressing—and ultimately fleeting. CP