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FringeReview UK 2016

Low Down

Premiere of Caryl Churchill’s Pigs and Dogs a fourteen-minute distillation of homophobia in Africa. Dominic Cooke directs this latest play with the trio of Fisayo Akinade, Sharon D Clarke and Alex Hassell stalking the Courts Downstairs stage stripped for the other play running (Anthony Neilson’s Unreachable), in a rhythmic telling.


Dominic Cooke directs this latest play by Caryl Churchill, Pigs and Dogs a fourteen-minute distillation of homophobia in Africa, with the trio of Fisayo Akinade, Sharon D Clarke and Alex Hassell stalking the Courts Downstairs stage stripped for the other play running, in a rhythmic telling.


Churchill’s plays have become even more compressed since a comparable piece, the poetic, litanic Seven Jewish Children of 2009. Between, Love and Information bombarded with micro-narratives, Here We Go featured individuals stepping out of a wake and relating their own disparate deaths, and recently Escaped Alone, featured Linda Basset stepping out of the narrative (and this same stage) delivering sang-froid fuetillons of apocalypse. This shorthand’s not new, but Churchill’s informational velocity is something more recent.


Churchill happily acknowledges the play’s pith is fully derived from Stephen O Murray and Will Roscoe’s Boy-Wives and Female Husbands, which explores the African language around same-sex patterns of sexuality. This suggests too she doesn’t wish to personalize or dramatize individuals, which might seem a reductive affront, but hones her telegraphic multiple eye like a quiverful of needles pressed into a pin-cushion of dramatic space. Certainly oppression’s pricked by conscience and bleeds.


Taking as a starting point the new Anti-Homosexuality Act of Uganda of 2014, condemning gay people to death (now commuted to life) Churchill explores two shrouded truths: how European missionaries exported homophobia and how the delicate ecology of acceptance, the language for gay and accepted gay lifestyles is richly pervasive throughout African cultures, multifarious and above all rooted.


Not, naturally, accepted by the battery of nay-sayers we’re presented with first. The play title’s President Mugabe’s, surely a first for him. ‘If dogs and pigs don’t do it, why must human beings?’ A chilling post blames with unconscious irony, as we discover: ‘You western-backed goats./They forced us into slavery and killed millions./Now they want to downplay the sinfulness of homos./It shall not work.’ The very word ‘homo’ as well as the homophobia is, Churchill reminds us, western.


So it’s not long before a Churchill target, an American rap group states ‘There is no word in any African language that describes homosexual’ which is then exploded, particularly as it’s usually the English language that expresses homophobia first. The inchoate gem above derives from one of the many ‘Somebody says’ anaphoras that in itself stitches the deniers into a litany of humming alternatives that punctuate the play poetically like ‘wasa’ and the closing affirmatives that almost turn the end to a chorus. As someone from Burkina Faso quietly asserts ‘Gender is not the same as anatomy’.


It’s not without resistance. Churchill delights in twitting Americans though it was Europeans who exported homophobia through missionaries, and Europeans whom she also quietly apostrophizes in a range of anthropological discoveries they themselves make over four centuries. Today it’s US evangelists fronting support for such a view in chilling colonial language like an outtake from Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You about the Anglo-American relationship dramatized (as it happens) as a same-sex love-in: ‘We’re losing America. We’re winning in Africa.’ Except that’s a neon-minted genuine quote.


Akinade, Clarke and Hassell offer a virtuosic display too of accents, language flips and body-struts, slouches and a generally thrilling perambulation of a chorus fluidly moving in and out of race, gender, culture and attitude.


This is a play worth seeing again and re-reading, perhaps re-raiding in snatches since it’s rich and head-spinning, and you end up stopping in outraged disbelief at this virulent legacy of colonialism now tacitly re-invested in by fundamentalists of all stripes. Pigs and Dogs, as well as remaining above all a dramatic paean, triumphs as a document worth disseminating far beyond this ten-day run. Its very establishment of new words for us to ponder, a delicate chain of same-sex acceptance throughout Africa, might help shift attitudes and save lives.