FringeReview UK 2019
Directed for the Donmar by Lynette Linton, With Frankie Bradshaw’s bar set with rust-iron hangings and verismo bar with a hallucinatory neon-stroked world, courtesy of Owen Fenwick’s lighting with George Dennis’ sound composition, and the blaring TV of Gino Ricardo Green.
There’s two mesmerising strands of drama centring around the New York Public Theater at the moment – many written by women. Patient exploratory work like Annie Baker’s and several others like Emily Shwend; and a more edgy kind typified by Amy Herzog, whose Belleville arrived at the Donmar a year ago (December-January seem the months for U. S. drama over here).
Directed for the Donmar by Lynette Linton, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-prize winning Sweat is definitely from the latter strand. But it arrived at the NYP Theater after its initial run in the rustbelt city of Reading, which gave it birth. Indeed after two years of research. Nottage her pays homage to what’s riven this small city, now officially the poorest for its size in the U. S. It’s just the kind of place Trump appealed to. Nottage, shortly before he was elected, shows why.
Sweat has a curious timeliness despite its locked-in chronology. Set mainly in 2000 with scenes from 2008 – all precisely dated with TV footage and weather reports – it charts how friendships unravel when machines stop. Charting corporate greed and slashing wages by 60% to galvanize union action, lock-out and shut-down, it’s paralleled with the way the U. S. government bailed out that corporate greed in the recession caused by the very people who stripped out industry for bottomless credit, creating what Nottage terms ‘the American de-industrial revolution’.
With Frankie Bradshaw’s remarkable bar set with rust-iron hangings and verismo bar that has to morph eight years at one point, we’re in that hallucinatory neon-stroked world where it’s always o’clock and never dark or quiet, courtesy of Owen Fenwick’s lighting with George Dennis’ sound composition, and the blaring TV of Gino Ricardo Green reminding us how, almost nostalgically, the world despised G W Bush as the worst U. S. president. A few moments of respite with other scenes allows a dust sheet to shroud a throbbing world, but it’s brief.
We open with Sule Remi’s Evan, a probation officer dealing with two young men Jason and Chris, paroled for an unspecified offence eight years earlier. Throughout we return to 2008, but the action’s mainly set back in the year of the hanging chads. Even now Jason’s stamped himself with ‘Aryan’ facial tattoos. Nottage’s prescience is breath-taking, but then as she herself said, she listened. Patrick Gibson captures the pulsating inner collapse of an inchoate young man shorn of a future, taking to the woods.
Osy Ikhile’s Chris reveals a completely different facet to Jason, lifelong friends sundered by what landed them here. Chris has remained unfazed by Jason’s comments like ‘White Guilt Month’ for Black History Month. A brief redemptive gesture then powers through the narrative that mostly precedes it. Ikhile’s incredulous moments are reserved for his father. Ikhile manages the difficult task of conveying someone whose finer impulses are still riven with regret and resentment, not least to his parents – his mother queries his later turning to the church.
Despite the envelope of explosive maleness, this play centres on three women from the steelworks who owe their identity, their self-respect and livelihood to being second or third-generation workers in Olstead’s; much of the action’s occurs on their three birthdays. Two have sons – Jason and Chris again – with opposite takes on the future.
Leanne Best’s Jessie, the calamitous drunk owns a brief moment of nostalgia for the Kathmandu trail she never took, though she’s less invested in events. It’s still a strand of the American dream unlived. The drama involves a peacemaker barman Stan (Stuart McQuarrie, an injured ex-employee), and Oscar the Colombian under him: nearly all the scenes take place in Mike’s Bar where tensions finally explode. An errant father and Remi’s parole officer provide flanking commentaries.
A divisive shadow falls across lifelong friendship when Clare Perkins’ Cynthia gets promoted over Martha Plimpton’s Tracey, whose dormant racism spits first resentment then outright hostility. She expresses it to Sebastian Viveros’ Oscar who’s looking for openings in Olstead’s and later contemplates work as a scab. Tracey’s German ancestry is important to her. And not just son Jason but barman Stan are German-descended too (Stan though specifically rejects racism). The demographic’s close to Pittsburgh’s.
Plimpton in a superbly unbalanced paean to Tracey’s ancestors explains how her house and furniture was made by Tracey’s grandfather and family. She’s a strong Union activist. But it boils down to excluding Oscar: ‘that piece of paper… don’t mean anything. Olstead’s isn’t for you.’ It’s this language of exclusion that simmers with her and later Jason, whom she eggs on at a critical moment.
If it seems chips are stacked against Tracey’s kind it’s not just the gentle Stan’s place in the balance; but the uncertain witness of Cynthia’s ex Wil Johnson’s Brucie. Bumming off his family, stealing a goldfish tank, he’s nevertheless like Tracey a staunch union man who sees exactly what’s coming before anyone else. In a fractured arc of nobility he describes how his activism is no longer relevant, to his incredulous son Chris who wants him to be heroic again.
Perkins and Plimpton throw a swathe of contradictions out. Cynthia’s fought so hard to get promotion, usually denied African-Americans, that it compromises her when asked to stand with her friends. Though Tracey’s reaction is hardly conciliatory. Most tellingly, Cynthia actually suspects she’s been deliberately set up as there fall guy by a white management already bent on downsizing. Despite this, Cynthia seems paralysed. In a mesmerising cast Perkins and Plimpton have to dig deepest, but each performance is beautifully calibrated.
Nottage perhaps invests hope in the young, that their own appalling fall-out might be surmounted. Chris and Jason retrace their steps to the scene of 2000, with a final twist and reveal both Chekhovian and ferocious. More wide-ranging than Emily Schwend’s superb, patient Utility, it traces destruction: of a city and community, its history flayed; a whole phase-end of a continent. And it shows us the levers and pulleys as pain as those swinging idly in the set.
No wonder this play’s just extended its run. Don’t even read this before you try booking.