Lord of the Flies, Female Leaders and a Fragile Democracy: An Interview with Director Annie Rigby on Staging William Golding’s Novel

Annie Rigby

An island where the rule of law is contested. A group of young people entering adulthood. Given the political context of our times nationally, and with new students starting at university here in Durham, now seems a perfect moment to perform a theatrical adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, in a co-production between Gala Theatre and Durham Student Theatre. Director Annie Rigby fills us in on how the production has interpreted Golding’s 1954 work for the stage today.

William Golding’s novel is a literary rite of passage for many young adults. Briefly, does the play version differ in any significant ways from the book with which many of our readers will already be familiar?

Nigel Williams has created the most incredible adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It is a brilliant distillation of the novel. It cleverly captures a lot of Golding’s rich metaphors and imagery within the dialogue and action onstage. It has a stunning pace, seeing the power balance shift vividly between Ralph and Jack – the leaders of the two gangs of children on the island – and the escalation of threat and violence.

Photo credit: Lee Dobson

Lord of the Flies involves a group of young people who are forced through the rituals of adulthood, and who end up descending towards savagery. And this Gala and Durham Student Theatre co-production comprises student actors who, though hopefully not ending up in the same place, are still starting to navigate the complex social structures of university and adulthood. How did you draw this out in choosing the cast and producing the play?

Golding’s story has a lot to say about class, privilege, racism and violence. The stage adaptation includes many moments that are purposefully uncomfortable, and ask challenging questions about society and humanity. It’s been fascinating to open up these conversations with the cast and assistant directors. The team brings together people from both state and public schools, different ethnicities, class identities and of course a range of different life experiences. I am really grateful for their honesty, insight and support of each other in exploring the issues in this story which continue to affect UK society.

You’re also using a gender-blind cast. What lies behind this decision? Given the protagonists of the original novel are all boys, how will this affect our perception of the play, if at all?

It mattered to William Golding that his story was about a single sex group of children. What unfolds grows from them being abandoned in this situation. I wonder if he saw women and girls as bringing a civilising influence. For me, however, staging Lord of the Flies in 2019, this is something that I wanted to question. Ever since my childhood in the 1980s, and right up until today, I have seen female political leadership taking decisions that cause just as much pain, social disadvantage and inequality as the decisions of men. I wanted to stage a production that, although it sticks to male names and pronouns, doesn’t seek to hide the gender of the women that make up half the cast. It mattered to me that women play the roles of both the strongest and weakest characters. So, we have a powerful, sometimes terrifying, Jack, played by Layla Chowdhury, and a vulnerable, other-worldly Simon played by Martha Dean.

Photo credit: Lee Dobson

As well as exploring the experience of the individual, Lord of the Flies raises some deep philosophical questions about government in general. Does sovereignty lie in the people or their elected leaders? What are the dangers of leaders who aspire to power for its own sake? When the people of an island are internally divided, does democracy have the ability to heal these wounds? It’s not hard to see where these questions might be headed! Will you be making anything of these connections to our own times? Has producing the play made you think differently about contemporary politics?

We always knew staging this production in 2019 would be interesting. However, we had no idea quite how relevant it would turn out to be! As we were stepping onto stage for the first time for technical rehearsals, news was coming in that the prorogation of Parliament was ruled as unlawful. Without giving too much away, we have definitely sought to make a connection between the story onstage and the audience having a moment to reflect on what is happening in right now in the UK. Listen out for the clever and affecting sound design created by John Alder. It brings a very current focus to the show’s exploration of the fragility of democracy and the repercussions of dismantling its structures.

Are there any other innovations we should look out for?

Andrew Stephenson’s design is extraordinary, and has created a really dynamic landscape to tell the story on. I am amazed by how nimbly and powerfully the cast move around 6 platforms onstage with fantastic physical performances.

Photo credit: Lee Dobson

In three words, why should we come and see the play?

Timely, powerful and knock-out-talented-cast (ok, I cheated on the 3 words!).

Lord of the Flies runs at Gala Theatre, Durham, from 30th September to 5th October. Annie Rigby is Artistic Director of Unfolding Theatre.

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