A masterpiece of pro-Trump propaganda: Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse reviewed

12 January 2019

9:00 AM

12 January 2019

9:00 AM

Sweat, set in the Pennsylvanian rust belt, looks at a blue-collar community threatened by a factory closure. The script uses the flashback device. Scene One informs us that two lads were found guilty of doing a Bad Thing eight years ago. What Bad Thing? The author won’t tell us because the play needs suspense but the revelation is delayed so long that our patience is tested to the limit.

The flaccid writing doesn’t help. Scene Two lasts 30 minutes and introduces us to the main characters, who visit the same bar every evening to get hammered and scream at each other. The only dramatic point in this lengthy scene is the revelation that two lovers had a big row about a fish tank. Scene Three tells us that cheap Hispanic labour is being hired but this snippet emerges only after six long minutes of dreary jabber. And so it goes on. Scenes are constructed around great wodges of chitchat but with little action or narrative development.

Though the characters are ethnically diverse, the author evidently disapproves of most Americans. The white characters are far thicker and less imaginative than their black counterparts. The whites, one of whom is illiterate, are content to toil in the factory until they die while the blacks seek promotion and education. And the whites are openly racist unlike their black chums who seem entirely free of prejudice. Jason, white, tells his black pal, Chris, that Black History Month should be renamed White Guilt Month. In reality that would end their friendship but Chris shrugs off Jason’s crass insult.

After they serve time in jail, Chris turns to the Lord for redemption while Jason joins the Aryan Brotherhood and gets a swastika tattooed on his face. And still the saintly Chris tries to repair their friendship. What about the swastika? Well it’s nothing personal obviously.

The final moment of this yawn-a-minute soap opera delivers a clever twist, but it’s hardly worth the two-hour wait. Really, this is a short sketch about a bar fight that the garrulous author has stretched out into a slow-motion epic that belongs on TV. I’ve seen plenty of dud plays garlanded with the Pulitzer. This is one of the weakest. The irony is that the script, completed in 2015, now seems fully aligned with Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda. Every one of these characters, including the blacks, would have voted for Trump in 2016. And they’d be lobbying hard to ensure that old ‘Grab-’em-by-the-pussy’ gets re-elected in 2020. The author, Lynn Nottage, is an African-American professor of theatre and she probably finds it rather embarrassing to have written a masterpiece of pro-Trump propaganda.

Richard II is Hamlet in reverse. Where Hamlet seeks to win a stolen crown, Richard must convince himself to surrender the prize to a rival. However, the plot of Hamlet is simple enough for a child to understand. Richard’s family background is so densely tangled that any serious play-goer will brush up on the history in advance. Clarity is essential to the success of any production so it’s a surprise to find that Joe Hill-Gibbins has placed the action in a septic tank. That, literally, is the set. A big square tin box.

The company, led by Simon Russell Beale, wear Primark casuals as if for an aerobics class. Some have no socks. The supporting cast of seven are obliged to double or to treble many of the roles, but it scarcely matters that this renders the play unintelligible because some of the actors appear not to understand their lines. Beautiful, haunting speeches are delivered like food regulations being recited by nervous health inspectors at a public inquiry.

The cast have been ordered to huddle together and creep sideways around the tin box, en masse, halting at odd moments to deliver a line or two before creeping onward. Some in the audience laughed. I wanted to weep. This is a pacifist production, so all weapons have been excluded. When a character is imprisoned, a pale of water is upended over his head. To indicate an execution, a bolus of crimson goo is flung at the tin walls and left to slither languidly downwards. No one, with the possible exception of Yoko Ono, could sit through this with a straight face.

Poor Simon Russell Beale. He delivers Richard’s lines with all his habitual expressive force but the visual absurdities — the gym clothes, the steel enclosure — deprive the play of meaning. The physical indignities visited on him are painful to watch. His hair is massaged with fistfuls of compost and he is twice doused with buckets of liquid. The director has compelled him to spend half an hour lying motionless on the metal stage, soaked through. Is that wise? He’s in his late fifties. It’s January. A great man deserves a knighthood at this time of year, not pneumonia.

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