‘The Insect Play’ – preparing for life outside the bubble

It’s a funny old world.

For thirty-odd years we have had at least one child in school and in all of that time I have watched or participated in a great many school plays, either as a parent or as a teacher. This was to be the last one, as our youngest performs in his final production before graduating from high school (sixth-form college) in the coming week. It’s a teeny bit momentous really, for us as parents. Huge for him too, of course, but none-the-less an important milestone for us.

So what was this final production about then?

The GUS came home earlier on this year and announced that his group would be performing an adaptation of ‘The Insect Play’ by Karel and Josef Capek, a collaboration of Czech brothers, first performed in 1921 at the National Czechoslovakian Theatre in Brno. Their esteemed head of department at York College, Tony Ravenhall adapted the play from the original which has long had mixed reviews and I was intrigued to see how the enterprise would turn out.

Magnificently is the answer.

For those who do not know the play, I’ll give you a brief overview. A tramp in a park observes the lives of a variety of insects and (this is the clever part) draws analogies with human life, in all its glorious stages, from cradle to grave with diversions such as reproduction, gathering ye seeds while ye may, haves-and-have-nots, politics – most notably Communism, working for the greater good, nihilistic wars and Napoleonic world-conquering neuroses. Life and Death in sixty minutes. It’s genius is the crystal clear comparison of insect behaviour and life cycles with human ones.

The butterflies at the beginning of the play are hunted by a slightly loony lepidopterist (brilliantly portrayed by Emily Furness) their nymphomaniacal fluttering and flitting about is observed by the Tramp (equally well played by Josh Sissons) who (perhaps through his drunken haze) interprets their actions in human terms, as ‘bright young things’ from a Roaring Twenties champagne party. Some clever word-play, flawlessly expressed, coupled with well-choreographed movements drew the audience in even closer than the unusual ‘Promenade’ participation accorded and we were hooked, mesmerised by these young actors’ performances.

With just a tinge of sadness at the death of Victor, snaffled by a bird (off-stage), the butterflies flit-flutter off and the Tramp is intrigued to come across a pair of dung-beetles, carefully rolling their nest-egg, the sum of their life’s work, around to find a suitable place to hoard their ‘Lovely’; both Mr and Mrs Beetle are clearly obsessed with what they have amassed, lavishing far more love and attention upon it than towards each other. Mildly comical in appearance, the Gus made a very convincing Dung Beetle – a fact that concerns me not a little! Still, this is the hallmark of a good actor, being convincing, so now I am on the horns of a dilemma – proud  of his ability to morph into another character effectively, slightly disgusted at the idea of my son, the dung beetle. But, I digress, yet again!

The story moves on with the arrival of the Crickets, bedecked in The Green, with accompanying Irish characterisation, well portrayed by Anastasia Crook as a heavily pregnant Mrs Cricket and Louis Hague as her doting husband, Mr Cricket. Their poignant representation of the Middle Classes, concerned with a ‘nice new pair of curtains’ rang true with many of the audience; tragically they succumb to the voracious appetite of the Ichneumon Fly (played by Dan Burton), who is singularly obsessed with feeding his precious larvae, a  spoilt brat magnificently portrayed by Tasha Connor. The Parasite, assuredly played by Kirsten Allison, dressed in a proletarian shell-suit and achieving an impeccable Geordie accent, rammed home the pertinent message of the narcissistic, ‘Me-First’ generation.

After a short interval Act Three, The Antics of the Ants, presents an altogether ominously dark representation of life in a commune, with workers mindlessly following their leader’s instructions, all to achieve the most efficient and profitable outcome for the State. The snide provocation of War, in order to glorify the newly-self-appointed Empress Ant (authoritatively portrayed by Claire Rimmington) results in the chaotic breakdown of society, reinforcing the idea that pursuit of power, for its own sake, is reprehensible and will always end in total failure. The tramp, disgusted by what he has seen finally interferes with the insects’ lives by killing the leader of the victorious colony of ants, which ultimately causes his own demise. He dies. The Chrysalis, who has been interjecting continually throughout the play so far, is finally born as a beautiful moth, but dies almost instantly, with only the moths around the flame to sing a song of mourning. The three moths, Isobel Leger, Lydia Potter and Emma Berridge’s haunting, exquisite rendition of the newly composed song of the cycle of life and death cast an air of finality over the proceedings.

A delightfully comedic epilogue in which two snails painfully slowly steal the show, cleaning up the carnage and thereby renewing the cycle of life breaks the tension magically. The moving symbolism of other humans acknowledging the death of a fellow human being with the placing of a single rose upon the corpse of the deceased Tramp is not lost upon the audience.

I was struck by the importance of all of these messages to our young people, who are embarking upon their own careers forthwith. This version of The Insect Play clearly concerns itself with the greater questions of how to live in this world once life is bestowed upon us. The lampooning of human greed, complacency and selfishness emphasizes the relativity of human values and the most pressing need to come to terms with human life. How much more pertinent could a final performance be? It was a breathtakingly brilliant choice to undertake the retelling of this vital story. I’m sure that all involved will hold its message dear to their hearts for many years to come. I know Toby will.

The Insect Play, York College cast and crew, 12th June 2015
The Insect Play, York College cast and crew, 12th June 2015

Thank you to all the staff at York College for such insightful and valuable lessons to our children, who have matured into interesting, informed and intuitive young adults under your tutelage; may I offer my good wishes to all the graduates for success in the future.

Thanks for reading once again, my friends!




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