Lord of the Flies is a novel by William Golding set firmly in its time. It was published in 1954 although written a couple of years earlier and rejected by several publishers. It was Golding’s response to a novel he had read, The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean by R M Ballantyne from 1857, which concerned a group of children stranded on a desert island but saved by their belief in Christianity. Golding wanted to portray ‘children who behave in the way children really would behave.’ He must have had a very jaundiced view of the kids at the time.

The story is mainly about relationships and so the plot is a bit thin. The gist is that a group of pre-adolescent schoolboys has been stranded on a desert island after the plane which was used to evacuate them from an impending nuclear war, has crashed. They soon form two factions; one which is intent on keeping order through violence and mainly made up from members of a choir, complete with surplices and cassocks, obviously a dig at The Coral Island influence; and a more moderate group who comprise schoolchildren from the lower strata of society. There follows a series of power struggles.

Jason Connor as Piggy and Sade Malone as Ralph

The play begins with the meeting of Ralph, played by Sade Malone (Angela Jones takes the part on tour) and Piggy, Jason Connor, on the beach. After getting to know each other they decide to use a conch they have found to signal to any other prospective survivors that there is someone else alive. Shortly thereafter the choir arrives, marching in single file behind their leader, Jack, Patrick Dineen. After being joined by a couple more individuals a vote is taken to decide who should be the leader. Jack assumes that it will be him as he is a prefect at school but in the event, he only gets one vote – his own – with Ralph picking up the rest.

It is decided that the group will be run by consensus with everyone free to express their opinions in meetings, the only proviso being that, in order to prevent chaos, only the person holding the conch is allowed to speak at any one time. This works until two outside forces are introduced; a pig, which is seen running through the jungle, and a mysterious ‘beast’ whose presence is witnessed by a couple of castaways.

Jack, who has become frustrated at the lack of enthusiasm from the democrats to make spears from branches, forms a splinter group, mainly comprising the choir, and goes off to catch the pig, which he does, and the animal is slaughtered. To celebrate the kill, the hunters daub themselves in the pig’s blood and dance round the carcass. The head is impaled on a stick and displayed for all to see. This is where the piece gets its name, as, when it is visited some days later and has become covered in maggots and bluebottles, it is dubbed Lord of the Flies.

The hunters, left to right; Aki Nakagowa (Henry), Patrick Dineen (Jack), Jason Battersby (Roger), Nate Leung (Bill) and Justice Ezi (Maurice)

Having successfully dispatched the pig, Jack vows to hunt down the beast and enrols everyone else to join him except for Ralph and Piggy, who remain on the beach, hoping to attract a passing ship, although the fire which they lit using Piggy’s glasses to focus the sun, has been put out by the hunters during their celebration. Jack has also confiscated the specs and taken them with him.

Jack’s hunting party, being unable to locate the beast, turn their attentions on Simon (Adam Fenton) who Jack has been bullying since the beginning of the play, because of his disability. He says that the beast can be in the form of a human and be inside anyone so the mob attacks Simon and kills him.

The beast is actually a dead fighter pilot who had ejected from his plane but whose parachute became entangled high in the trees, leaving him suspended in the foliage.

They then turn their ire onto the hapless Piggy who has tracked them down to the cliff edge in order to retrieve his glasses. In the struggle which follows on from Jack’s refusal to give them back, Piggy is pushed over the cliff to his death on the rocks below.

The play ends with a showdown between Jack and Ralph which degenerates into a mass brawl only interrupted by the presence of a British naval officer who is part of a rescue party.

As is normally the case with Leeds Playhouse productions, the characters have been changed to include actors of differing genders, abilities and ethnic backgrounds. The programme explains this by saying ‘Amy (Leach, the Director) has chosen to reflect the world we live in now – and the audiences who will fill the auditoriums in Leeds and on tour’. In this case, it works to some extent but changes the whole dynamic of the original novel, as does having the schoolchildren played by actors obviously in their 20s. There is, however, the opportunity to highlight that acts of barbarity are capable of being committed by all sections of the community. It also cleverly gives a chance for a couple of children who are d/deaf, to translate some of the passages into BSL.

Jack (Patrick Dineen), bullying the two d/deaf characters Eric (Ciaran O’Breen) and Sam (Eloise Pennycott)

I realise that it is unfeasible to have child actors take these parts in a live play, especially one so brutal and demanding as this, but we are now so used to seeing violence between those in their late teens and early twenties on the news every night that it has become the norm. Even so, it was still fairly shocking. Can you imagine the impact such a description of children’s behaviour would have had in the immediate post-war years when the country was working together to rebuild.

The other way the original has been blurred is the method by which the beast is used. The underlying message is that of the dangers of groupthink, a term which was coined at about the same time as the novel was written. This is when the influence of a section of people leads to issues not being properly thought through by the masses who rely on the conclusions of those propounding them. Never has this been such a danger as it is at the present with the myriad conspiracy theories being put forward on the internet for sheep, with a need to belong, to follow. The difference now is that the originators of propaganda can remain anonymous. At least before social media they had to peddle their ill-considered theories in person or via leaflets with a physical address on them rather than a spurious email one.

As the novel deals with the wartime evacuation of the children, I would have assumed that the beast in human form would have been referring to the tyranny practised by the likes of Hitler or Stalin so anyone thought to have been a part of those groups would have been fair game. The slaying of Simon because of his health issues seems to turn the whole thing on its head by targeting an individual for a specific reasons rather than because of the threat he posed to the beliefs of the assailant.

On a personal note, I do have an issue with William Golding’s understanding of the child psyche, even though he was a schoolteacher. I had a lot of empathy for Piggy because, when this novel was being published I was just starting primary school and was carrying a few(?) pounds overweight, I also wore glasses. My nickname was Billy Bunter (Google it!) which I obviously hated. Actually, this production implies that Piggy is the character’s given name, but either way, had I been cast away with a lot of total strangers, I would have been only too pleased to have lied through my teeth to make a fresh start and said my name was Rock, Clint or even Stan. OK, maybe not Stan.

Regardless of interpretation, this was an extremely powerful play, impeccably acted by all of the cast, and is well worth seeing.

The set and costume design by Max Johns deserves special mention as it takes a minimalist approach yet still differentiates between the jungle, the mountains and the beach.

Lord of the Flies is a Leeds Playhouse and Belgrade Theatre Coventry co-production in association with Rose Theatre, and runs at Leeds Playhouse until Saturday, 8th April. For more details and to book, please go to https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/event/lord-of-the-flies/

Photographs by Anthony Robling provided by Leeds Playhouse.

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