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Tracy Letts’ play Bug, in which a seedy motel in Oklahoma becomes a breeding ground for two individuals’ conspiracy theories, has traditionally presented a marketing challenge. William Friedkin’s film version in 2006 – starring Ashley Judd and a then relatively unknown Michael Shannon – was difficult to categorise as either a black comedy, thriller, romance or a horror; ultimately, the film’s marketing team ploughed down the horror route, the complexity of Bug was shrugged off and the film performed poorly.
Simon Evans’ new production of Bug, however – located at Found111, a pop-up theatre on the former site of Central Saint Martins School of Art – faces no such challenge. Why? Because of James Norton. The actor’s star has risen colossally this year thanks to the successful trio of Happy Valley, Grantchester and War and Peace, and his casting has ensured that the run sold out entirely.
Bug depicts the world of Agnes (Kate Fleetwood), a waitress who works at a gay-bar and is temporarily living in an Oklahoma motel in an attempt to avoid her spouse who has been recently released from jail. She’s purposefully cut herself off from her former life and has taken root in a space intended for temporary guests. Fleetwood’s performance is enchanting; her earthly, resonant voice and piercing eyes lend an otherworldliness to Agnes that allows the character to be a passenger in the bizarre narrative.
The play begins with Agnes’ phone ringing intermittently for her to pick up and have no one answer. She believes it’s her ex-husband, but the caller never confirms this suspicion. Her friend R.C. brings over Peter Evans (James Norton) to come and party at the motel. Whilst he’s in the bathroom, R.C. and Agnes joke about the possibility of Peter being a serial killer. However, Peter’s calmness seems to sooth Agnes and she is quick to trust him and invite him to stay the night. Although complimenting Agnes’ beauty, Peter declares that he wants nothing sexual to happen and sleeps on the floor. As their relationship grows more intense, Peter begins to let more about his past come to light. He claims to have escaped military control and is suspicious that he is being followed. He becomes bewitched by a theory that bugs have burrowed inside his body and are sending information back to the military. He involves Agnes in his erratic narratives and the duo become imprisoned by their paranoia. It’s an unsettling tale and definitely not a simplistic genre piece.
Norton’s portrayal of Peter is a marginal detour from his work on Happy Valley, as brooding psychopath Tommy – not that this is disappointing. What’s interesting about Norton is his ability to play strong, quiet characters that can easily slip into manic bouts of rage. It’s an unexpected gift for someone whose appearance could have short-changed his career. In a similar vein to Jamie Dornan in The Fall, it appears to be in vogue to take a model-esque man and challenge his beauty in psychopathic roles. In the case of Bug, the loveliness of Peter’s exterior has both Agnes and the audience enchanted. And we never fully comprehend the truth about him or what’s really going on.
In a time where the FBI is approaching Apple for permission to access private information on personal devices and the Panama Papers are released confirming our long existing suspicion about corruption under our noses, Bug feels timely. Peter’s suspicion that he’s been “bugged” sits comfortably in the company of our society’s broader anxieties about privacy and truth. It’s a feeling we understand and sympathise with. And, despite a gruesome scene involving the pulling of a tooth, Evans’ play makes great effort to not demonise Peter or Agnes or their theories; we fear for their mental stability but they have us on side for the majority of the play. Darkly comic and thrilling, there’s plenty to discover.
The venue itself is highly interesting. Producer Emily Dobbs is at the helm of the theatrical treasure trove that has once again planted highly sought-after actors into a venue that only seats a small audience. Tickets are in high demand and with only a six-week run, the production has sold out completely. Much of the fun of the production is entering off a busy street, into what looks like a disused building and climbing up the endless floors before reaching a bar area. It feels exclusive.
Then, when you finally enter the theatre, you are sat cheek to cheek with a crowd in a claustrophobic space. Based on overheard conversations, many of the audience members were not regular theatre-goers. It seems that Norton’s TV fame brought in a more eclectic crowd than usual, with plenty of praise for Norton echoing through the halls. Found111 has managed to counterbalance the exclusivity of the space with an accessible, exciting theatrical event that families and non-theatregoers appear to be going mad for. The team at Found111 have created a low-key version of the immersive theatre productions that have been popular in the last few years, like Punchdrunk’s Fable of a Drowned Man or Les Enfant Terribles’ Alice’s Adventures Underground. While being exciting for the event factor, Bug is also a play the burrows deep and affects something within.
Bug runs at Found111 until Sat May 7.