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