After staging his acclaimed production ‘The Dazzle’ at Found111 last year, Simon Evans now returns with a revival of Tracy Letts’ play Bug twenty years after it premiered at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill. Of course Bug went on to New York and became a film with Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd in 2006, directed by William Friedkin of The Exorcist fame. Yet seeing the play in the trendy Found111, you feel that it belongs in an intimate space.
Located on the top floor of the former Central Saint Martin’s College on Charing Cross Road, Found111 has become a hip fringe venue with a derelict touch and exotic cocktails. Transformed into a theatre-in-the-round for the occasion, you find some members of the audience virtually sitting on the stage, which features a bedroom in a shabby motel on the outskirts of an Oklahoman city where the entire action takes place.
Agnes is lonely and still grieving over her son Lloyd who was only six years old when he disappeared nine years ago. Now in her forties, she spends her days inhaling cocaine, living in fear of her violent ex-husband Jerry, who has just been released on parole after doing a stretch for armed robbery. Agnes’s fears seem to be justified when we see Jerry barging in, smacking her for displeasing him and taking most of her money. At about the same time, Agnes’s gay friend R.C. brings Peter along, an attentive and courteous stranger who seems somewhat lost. Agnes is suspicious at first but when Peter assures her that he is not an axe murderer, she invites him to stay the night.
Soon after Peter lies down, he claims that he has been bitten by parasites. He meticulously scans all the sheets and bedding and discovers a major bug infestation. Sceptical at first, Agnes begins to see the little critters as well. Peter becomes obsessed with the bugs, claiming they are in his bloodstream and were implanted by the government whilst he was a soldier in the Gulf War. Agnes, lonely and vulnerable allows herself to be drawn into Peter’s paranoid fantasy that combines a variety of conspiracy theories.
The play is permanently unsettling. The telephone rings but nobody is on the line. Agnes is very afraid of her ex-husband and I found myself looking at the door, waiting for Jerry to enter at any time. The closeness to the stage and the intimacy of the venue intensifies the feeling of unease. When Peter arrives on the scene, one thinks that Agnes will be safe, at least for the time being. Yet Peter turns out to be completely delusional. But then again, is he really imagining all these things? Why are helicopters circling over the motel? And who is the mysterious Dr Sweet?
Tracy Letts was playing with conspiracy theories and paranoia when writing this play, which was some time before 9/11 and the Patriot Act. His character imagines tracking microchips and other spyware that is used by the government to control him and spy on him. These ideas are not quite as outlandish as they used to be before we caught various government agencies, domestic and foreign, spying on us and reading our private e-mails. I would suggest that Bug has become more timely and relevant over the years. This is a very unsettling drama with some deeply disturbing scenes but thankfully, there is some very witty dialogue to ease the tension.
Kate Fleetwood , who recently impressed as a contemporary Medea at the Almeida Theatre, is painfully vulnerable as Agnes who needs to believe that Peter is right although his world view is apocalyptic at best, maybe to give release to Agnes’s own madness. James Norton, best known for “War and Peace” and “Happy Valley”, gives a very intense performance as the traumatised ex-serviceman who feels that his whole body has been invaded by government spyware. Alec Newman plays Jerry Goss as laid-back and chilled but he is a violent man and this violence erupts as soon as he feels crossed. Daisy Lewis and Carl Prekopp give splendid support as R. C. and Dr Sweet .
Reviewed by: Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Simon Annand
Bug is playing at Found111 until 7th May 2016
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes with one interval
Age recommendation 12+: Contains adult themes.