In a haze-filled, muggy room four floors up at 111 Charing Cross Street (formerly Central St. Martins Art School) an audience is suddenly aware of every itch, ever stir, every scratching sensation as it flares up across their bodies. The paranoia is not helped by the surroundings – the whole space, hemmed in on all sides by the crowd, becomes intensely claustrophobic and sweaty as, beetle-like, a crazed and blood-coated James Norton sidles across the stage.
Such is Bug, currently being put on at Found111, a site specific venue formerly used by productions including last year’s The Dazzle and Barbarians. This time the space is transformed into an Oklahoma motel room, the abode of Kate Fleetwood’s Agnes, hiding from her recently returned ex-husband after his release from prison. There she is thrown into contact with the mysterious Peter Evans (Norton), an elusive, bug-obsessed individual with, using the easiest turns of phrase, a murky past.
This is not theatre for the faint of heart (for faint an audience member did), dripping in visceral sound effects and blood packs as the actors scratch and claw at one another. The sense of immersion at Found111 (the audience essentially thrown into the motel with Fleetwood, Norton and the remainder of the cast) is slowly transformed into a slightly sickening sense of parasitic awareness – we were privy to their insectoid delusions; we are made gnawingly aware that the show is, in itself, as artificial and constructed as the imaginary bugs that Agnes and Peter perceive.
Letts’ text is a marvellously wonderful piece – slowly twisting the knot of paranoia and suspense as language becomes more fragmented and desperate. By the end of the performance, she has transformed her own characters into warped contraptions, all reconfigured to fit the paranoid narrative that the two main characters create for themselves. It is masterful work that has not lost any of its bite over the last twenty years. The plot and the narrative seemed reminiscent of Nicky Silver’s Pterodactyls – an American suburbia reconfigured by psychological delusion in the face of intense personal tragedy. Where Bug transcends Silver’s piece is through the physical quality of the text – it crawls through the audience, leaving an innate feeling of uncleanliness.
Norton has grabbed headlines with his performance as Peter – the instigator and catalyst of the bug-based terror. For a large man he seems constantly hunched, shuffling across the stage in a direct imitation of the creatures he seems taunted by. Pock-marked and blood stained, his slow degradation was so utterly complete that when he finally re-emerged for the exuberant applause it seemed as though a new man had emerged from the ashes.
Though the applause will go to Norton, it is Kate Fleetwood’s Agnes that acts as the foundation for the play – her collusion with Norton’s psychological issues drawing the audience into this deluded pairing and creating the slightly sickening knot in the stomach. Her haunted, pained expression permeated through the motel-room space as she lilted, often absent-mindedly, across the stage. Thankfully this wasn’t merely the result of her cheekbones, in spite of the opinion of some critics.
The design and sound were as effective as the actors themselves in forging the infested surroundings of Found111. The removal of the carpet, leaving only tin foil for the actors to walk across, made each footstep almost a rustle of insect ligaments or the buzz of wings. Even a day later I still find myself scratching absent-mindedly.
The play seemed to pull its punches somewhat in the first act, restraining Norton and Fleetwood from delivering fully formed emotional responses to circumstances in an attempt to truly ramp up the shock factor for the second half of the show. Certainly an effective move from director Simon Evans, but it dampened some of the emotional moments from early on – Agnes’s loss of her son Lloyd for one.
This was theatre at its most visceral, claustrophobic and shocking. Whilst not every beat landed, the play certainly achieved the effect it wanted – leaving audiences scratching their heads (and their arms, and their legs, and their chests, and their backs…..).
Director Simon Evans
Cast: James Norton, Kate Fleetwood, Alec Newman, Daisy Lewis, Robert Goodale
Set and Costume Designer Ben Stones
Lighting Designer Richard Howell
Composer and Sound Designer Edward Lewis
Associate Director / Movement Director Oliver Kaderbhai