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Stage Editorial

warofthe18.jpg Nice Planet. We’ll take it

HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds was published in the final years of Victoria’s reign but has remained in print ever since. It’s also inspired a huge number of films, TV adaptations, games – and more – and its latest incarnation, at Northern Stage, sees the action transplanted to the north-east of England where a band of survivors confront a Martian invasion against a Newcastle backdrop, circa 1898.

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”

The opening sentence to HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds is one of the most chilling in all of English literature; and as an inducement to the wary bookworm to hunker down and keep on reading, it certainly does the trick. And the tale – concerning a Martian invasion of Earth – has being doing the trick ever since with countless reinterpretations, spread across a variety of mediums, thrilling fans down through the years. One of the earliest adaptations was Orson Welles’ infamous radio play that was broadcast in the US in 1938. Welles’ background was in theatre and he certainly knew how to ramp up the drama by unfurling the action over a series of simulated news bulletins, the first of which interrupted a programme of dance music to report a series of odd explosions that had been spotted on Mars. These increasingly breathless reports gave a real sense of urgency to the production, too much urgency for some listeners who thought that the country was under attack.

Welles transported the drama away from Victorian England to contemporary New Jersey, and in 1953 the first feature film to tackle the novel also saw fit to move the action to modern day America. A landmark film in regards the advancement of special effects, it still holds up today, although it diverges significantly from the book not least in its treatment of religion. Steven Spielberg would also keep the action in the US with his big budget version of the novel in 2005, starring Tom Cruise. It’s notable for several stunning sequences – notably the initial tripod attack – with religion being downplayed this time in favour of a message concerning the dangers of imperialism.

The novel gained an authorised sequel in 2017 with Stephen Baxter’s generally well-received The Massacre of Mankind, but it will have to go some to top the affection that is felt for Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, a 1978 double album, which stuck to the original plot and setting, and had a sonorous Richard Burton narrating the story. The album has also had a new lease of life as a huge stage production – complete with fire spurting Martian tripod – and indeed it’s due back at the Metro Radio Arena again on 1 December 2018.

Also in 2018, the BBC are filming a three-part TV adaptation, which is being scripted by Peter Harness, but before that hits our screens we in the north-east will get the chance to enjoy Northern Stage’s vivid and dynamic new production. Once again, we’re back in 1898 and ten missiles have been fired at the unsuspecting Earth, all carrying an invading force of Martians. Hour by hour, day by day, they come, and are ready for war. But this time around their destination is Newcastle upon Tyne.

The piece is the first production to emerge from Northern Stage’s expanded and pioneering NORTH programme, which has went beyond actor training to include staging and touring a new production. It will be offering four emerging actors from the north-east the opportunity to perform professionally with the theatre. This new adaptation has been written by Laura Lindow (who won enormous praise for Key Change with Open Clasp) and has sound design by Mariam Rezaei, who is creating a suitably industrial soundscape. Directing is Elayce Ismail, who comments: “Setting the story in the north-east has given us a brilliant opportunity to reveal the secrets of this area and delve into its rich and evocative past. We’re really excited to be bringing this part of the world to life on stage for our audiences.”

It sounds like it’s going to be another compelling take on this evergreen classic, asking questions of a modern audience about refugees and the destruction of the planet, but I can’t help but feel that they’ve missed a trick – given its new setting – in not giving us a Wor of the Worlds.

NORTH: The War of the Worlds, Wednesday 31 January-Saturday 10 February, Northern Stage, Newcastle, 7pm (mats. Saturday 3 and Saturday 10 February, 2.15pm), from £10. northernstage.co.uk