Tuesday 29 January 2019

Sweat at the Donmar, or, Of Perennial Problems of New and Issue Plays

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 19th January 2019.

This latest in a sequence of recent American plays to make it to London arrives with a considerable reputation having won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017 (I was very struck to realise that one of the works it beat to that award was Taylor Mac's 24 Decade History of Popular Music in America - on the basis of my encounter with the first part of the latter at the Barbican the decision was definitely the wrong way round). Since it opened at the Donmar before Christmas it has received unanimous critical praise, and an examination of Twitter when I was writing this produced not a single audience member who was less than impressed. But I'm afraid I could not agree with all these people. From where I was sitting this was a flawed play which did not tell me anything really new about the issues it discussed.

There are strong aspects to the afternoon. The design of the central bar set, by Frankie Bradshaw and lit by Oliver Fenwick is beautifully done, and manages one of those occasions when the Donmar convincingly becomes another world. The detail of the objects chosen for the wall hangings particularly stood out. There's nice use of archive TV footage (presumably selected by Video Designer Gino Ricardo Green) although the sense of date was to my mind more concrete in that footage than from the actual text.

The acting ensemble is also a strong one. Lynette Linton's direction (this was my first encounter with her) shows a sense of the importance of stillness - and there's effective work in that capacity particularly from Stuart McQuarrie's Stan behind the bar, and from Sebastian Viveros's Oscar - his ignored work going on around the edges of certain scenes, and, often, capacity for more tenderness than many of the others is stands out. Periodically the group succeeded in transcending the weaknesses of the script - by sheer force of presence and delivery almost making me believe in the characters. Unfortunately, overall, the script's shortcomings are too great.

The first issue with Lynn Nottage's style is that you can see the joins in a clunky plot. I spotted where the plot was going in the second half and felt that Nottage manages to make the drama feel contrived. Moreover, it then takes forever for that long signaled denouement to arrive - we don't learn much more about the characters in the interim - certainly not enough to justify the slow pace. That pacing problem is further compounded by Polly Bennett's movement (which I'd expected great things of after the triumph of The Lehman Trilogy) - scene changes are slow despite their simplicity - and this only makes things drag and causes tension to dissipate.

Then there's the familiar problem of issue based theatre. Too often these characters felt more like vehicles for the political, economic and racial points Nottage wants to explore - references to Bush, NAFTA and so on are thrown about, but shallowly. There was no comparison to the richness of The Flick (which explores similar economic and racial questions with far more subtlety) or The Lehman Trilogy (which attempts a broader canvas far more convincingly). Some of the writing made me cringe - do people really talk about nostalgia being a disease or demand to know how their friends can talk without having walked in their shoes without showing some awareness that these might be rather over-dramatic, cliched ways of putting things? As so often with issue theatre Nottage shies away from real debate - none of the executives taking decisions about the fate of workers is shown. To an extent their position is put into Clare Perkins's (Cynthia) mouth but not to the point that a really meaningful debate can occur. Nottage was at her best when examining the attitude of both white and black characters to the Hispanic representative on stage - a rare occasion when I felt I was getting a sense of something I was not so well informed about.

The most annoying aspect, though, arises from the one element that I had become aware of in advance. I saw either a tweet or a snippet of a review proclaiming how amazing (warning spoilers coming) the fight scene is. I do not agree. First, Oscar turns up to collect his things from the bar (having taken a new job as a scab at the factory the others are shut out from). He goes off stage and a lengthy argument ensues. When he finally comes back on the size of his rucksack makes the length of time he has just spent off stage "collecting his things" completely unconvincing - and no other explanation is offered or hinted at for the delay. Second, and more maddening, is the business of the baseball bat. As tempers rise, Stan produces this from behind the counter, slams it down on a chopping board, and informs the group that there will not be any violence against Oscar in the bar. Now, the text has previously informed us that Stan is a Vietnam veteran. The presence of the bat suggests that he has had to deal with violence in the bar before - otherwise why keep the bat behind the bar. Nevertheless, he then, ludicrously as far as I was concerned, leaves the bat lying around on the bar, and plunges without it into the fight that starts. It simply did not convince me that a veteran would be so tactically inept.

Nottage also has problems, as so many new plays do, with how to finish. Things drag on after what is obviously supposed to be the climactic fight, and we end up with a rather unearned paean that we should all be nicer to each other. I certainly think the show would be better off without the prologue, which is a significant contributor to removing tension from the plot.

Maybe this was more original when it was first performed in 2015 before the election of Trump. In 2019 it tells us nothing about the context of that election not already known. There are passages of stronger writing, but this is not an issue play where the writer has managed to make those issues emerge organically through the plight of these particular characters. Despite some strong work from performers and aspects of the direction and set overall I found this an afternoon which dragged and which failed my fundamental test of really making me care. Not necessary to queue for returns.

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