Bank­ruptcy, sweat and tears

The hol­low­ness of the Amer­i­can dream is re­vealed in an in­sight­ful new work and two plays get rare out­ings

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Michael Billing­ton

Michael Billing­ton ad­mires a new look at the Amer­i­can dream, plus two lit­tle-per­formed plays

IACCEPT there may be more se­duc­tive ti­tles, but Sweat, at Lon­don’s Don­mar Ware­house, is a re­mark­able play. It’s about anger and de­spair in the one-time pros­per­ous steel town of Read­ing, Penn­syl­va­nia, USA. When its au­thor, Lynn Not­tage, who wrote the play in 2014, was asked by the New York Times how she fore­saw the rise of di­vi­sive, re­ac­tionary pol­i­tics in Amer­ica, her an­swer was sim­ply: ‘I showed up and lis­tened.’

The piece harks back to the tra­di­tional Amer­i­can bar-room play pop­u­larised by Wil­liam Saroyan in The Time Of Your Life and Eu­gene O’neill in The Ice­man Cometh, but where they were writ­ing about drunken no-hop­ers, Miss Not­tage’s char­ac­ters are hon­est hard work­ers in lo­cal fac­to­ries and, although drink­ing heartily, pre­dom­i­nantly fe­male.

I can’t think of any re­cent play that tells us so much about Amer­ica

What we see is how eco­nomic hard­ship breeds ran­cour and racial hos­til­ity. There is al­ready ten­sion when Tracey, a white Amer­i­can of Ger­man de­scent, finds her old­est friend, Africanamer­i­can Cyn­thia, be­ing pro­moted to su­per­vi­sor. That sense of be­trayal is height­ened when it falls to Cyn­thia to an­nounce that ev­ery­one is tak­ing a 60% pay cut and work­ing more hours.

Miss Not­tage spent two years in Read­ing in­ter­view­ing peo­ple to find out why a for­mer in­dus­trial pow­er­house had be­come one of the poor­est cities in Amer­ica. The play is a piece of drama, not a doc­u­men­tary, how­ever. What it shows, with rivet­ing can­dour, is how work gives peo­ple a con­crete iden­tity and how its loss de­means them. Tracey, con­fronted by a fac­tory lock­out, asks: ‘Do you know what it’s like to get up and have no place to go?’

If work gives her a daily pur­pose, for Cyn­thia, it’s be­come a means of so­cial ad­vance­ment.

Per­haps the most tragic vic­tims are their sons, who end up in jail after a bar-room fra­cas in­spired by im­mi­grant work­ers cross­ing a picket line to keep the fac­tory go­ing. I can’t think of any re­cent play that tells us so much about Amer­ica: a lot of what it has to say about the de­cline of in­dus­trial com­mu­ni­ties ap­plies equally well to mod­ern Bri­tain.

Martha Plimp­ton as Tracey and Clare Perkins as Cyn­thia make you be­lieve in a friend­ship trag­i­cally rup­tured, Patrick Gib­son and Osy Ikhile as their off­spring are scarred for life by eco­nomic de­cline and Stu­art Mc­quar­rie is pitch per­fect as the bar­tender who seeks to keep the peace. I’ll be as­ton­ished if this play doesn’t en­joy a life be­yond the Don­mar.

You could ar­gue that Shake­speare’s Ti­mon

of Athens also shows how bank­ruptcy breeds di­vi­sion. The fo­cus here, how­ever, is on the in­di­vid­ual rather than so­ci­ety.

In this em­bit­tered satire, Ti­mon be­gins as a reck­less spend­thrift, who, when his for­tunes fail and his friends desert him, turns into a mis­an­thropic her­mit. ‘The mid­dle of hu­man­ity thou never knewest but the ex­trem­ity of both ends,’ Ti­mon is told by the cyn­i­cal Ape­man­tus.

Much the same could be said of the play it­self. It never seems to ac­cept there is any sen­si­ble mid­way course be­tween com­pul­sive giv­ing and in­tem­per­ate rail­ing. It’s no one’s favourite Shake­speare, but it’s yielded fine per­for­mances in the past from Paul Scofield, David Suchet and Si­mon Rus­sell Beale. The ti­tle role is now taken, in Si­mon God­win’s vig­or­ous RSC pro­duc­tion, by Kathryn Hunter, who gets star­tlingly bet­ter as the play pro­ceeds.

In the first half, she didn’t catch the neu­rotic soli­tude that prompts Ti­mon’s lav­ish phi­lan­thropy, but, after the in­ter­val, as Ti­mon turns into an an­gry squat­ter in a rub­bish dump, Miss Hunter re­minded one of King Lear (a role I once saw her play

in Le­ices­ter). Like Lear, she was full of con­tra­dic­tions, em­brac­ing Nia Gwynne’s Ape­man­tus after pelt­ing her with stones.

Again like Lear, Miss Hunter seemed to ac­quire sanity and for­ti­tude as death ap­proached. I’m not a to­tal ad­vo­cate of cross-gen­der cast­ing, but, here, it hand­somely pays off.

If Ti­mon is a rel­a­tive rar­ity, Con­greve’s The Dou­ble Dealer, dat­ing from 1693, is a play you’re lucky to see once or twice in a life­time. The Na­tional The­atre did a fine pro­duc­tion 40 years ago with Robert Stephens and Dorothy Tutin. Selina Cadell, who is some­thing of a Con­greve spe­cial­ist, has re­vived it at Rich­mond’s Or­ange Tree and the re­sult is an evening that, as the cu­rate said of an egg in a Punch car­toon, is good in parts.

The con­vo­luted plot cen­tres on a pair of heart­less schemers try­ing to thwart the mar­riage of two young lovers. Ed­ward Ma­cliam as Maskwell is too trip­pingly in­sou­ciant to cap­ture the char­ac­ter’s cere­bral vil­lainy, but Zoë Waites ef­fec­tively dou­bles the roles of Maskwell’s part­nerin-crime and her vir­tu­ous vic­tim.

Best of all is Jenny Rains­ford as Lady Plyant, who keeps her un­for­tu­nate hus­band trussed up in bed­time blan­kets as she twitches with lust ev­ery time she spots a per­son­able male. It’s not one of Con­greve’s bet­ter plays, but Miss Rains­ford pro­vides one of the fun­ni­est por­tray­als I’ve seen of un­sat­is­fied de­sire.

‘Sweat’ un­til Jan­uary 26 (020– 3282 3808); ‘Ti­mon of Athens’ un­til Fe­bru­ary 22 (01789 331111); ‘The Dou­ble Dealer’ un­til Jan­uary 26 (020–8940 3633)

Kathryn Hunter ex­cels in the hith­erto male role of Ti­mon of Athens

Amer­ica’s racial and eco­nomic di­vides are per­cep­tively ex­plored in Lynn Not­tage’s pow­er­ful Sweat

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