FringeReview UK 2023
Here though, Rabiah Hussain’s greatest strengths are allied to an excoriating sense of the limits of first language, how it colonises, even destroys mother tongues, and marginalises, even imprisons those who buck the monolinguistic norm. Hussain’s poised for remarkable things.
Directed by Nimmo Ismail, Designer Rosanna Vize, Lighting Jamie Platt, Composer and Sound Designer XANA.
Movement Director Ken Nakajima, Casting Director Isabella Odoffin CDG Assistant Director Aneesha Srinivasan. Associate Designer Alys Whitehead
Production Manager Phoebe Bath, Stage Managers Alman Bandall, Suneeda Maruthlyil, Ava G. McCarthy & Marie-Angelique St Hill, Artist Wellbeing Practitioner Carol Cumberbatch, Playwright’s Personal Assistant Pia Richarde-Glockner, set Built by Royal Court Department & Ridiculous Solutions.
Till August 26th
With Rabiah Hussain’s Word-Play finally making its debut at the Royal Court Upstairs directed by Nimmo Ismail, the potential of this dramatist is becoming apparent.
Think Caryl Churchill’s splinter-scened Love and Information meets The Thick of It. But here Malcolm Tucker and team are trounced by a recent prime minister whose racist word (we’re not told what, we already know) sets running gags like a running sore through communities and plush dinner parties. Sustaining the play’s conceit, the No 10 party, behind Rosanna Vize’s glass-box set frantically google synonyms for the wrong kind of sorry, jump on latest poll-ratings and find, long before they knock off 13 hours later, that too many people are pleased.
Ismail’s shrewdly sealed off this recurring joke (heightened by Jamie Platt’s lighting), and the politcos are hermetically prevented from infecting the rest of us. Whereas – apart from two pre-recorded soundscapes with actors speculating on rivers of blood – the five actors occupy the Upstairs space with audience in traverse. Xana’s composition and sound design thrubs and points unease, seguing between scenes.
Issam Al Ghussain, Kosar Ali, Simon Manyonda, Sirine Saba, Yusra Warsama all work in various groupings and each have at least one major scene to themselves. At one scene, three of them play latecomers where some audience members are displaced and temporarily ushered to other seats. It’s fun and might have been done in the 1970s. But the point of bringing the word to – as it’s sur-titled – the actual Upstairs theatre isn’t lost.
Hussain’s interrogation of the way language inflects as well as infects, how power elites appropriate and weaponise it, end in a chilling denouement. Before that, the famous ‘See It. Say It. Sorted.’ posters displayed then contemptuously struck down and crumpled up chucked in a corner, after people try agreeing over the meaning of apparently simple words like “sorted”. There’s a harrowing witness from Manyonda telling how he’s been “a bad father” to his children – as his father tells him – because words can break bones.
Ali in a soliloquy about cracked bones and language makes this explicit, asks “Words don’t crack bones … Do they?”. Elsewhere Ali too expands to Warsama about repurposing her dissertation to address words: “It doesn’t damage organs or skin because it’s trapped in the body. And what happens to those who have to swallow their words” and proposes finding “little spaces inside the body.” Having suffered post-operative aphasia during the writing of this play, mentioned in the introduction, these aren’t idle metaphors.
There’s a fine scene where Saba hosting that plush dinner party deals with increasingly intrusive patronising attempts by her partner to appropriate he cultural space, all turning on “salt”. Saba and Al Ghussain spar as new lovers where the latter needles Saba into admitting racist assumptions based on “faith”. Al Ghussain’s used elsewhere to push such assumption beyond comfort. Warsama enjoys a delicious one-liner on the naming of terms ending up with “In this analogy I am a potato. And I am not offended.” There’s thematic links everywhere but the scenes cut off just at the point of smartness, before risking – with a fear of missing – profundity. A pity, because several really could be developed.
It’s Warsama though who provides the chilling final scene with an innocent mother and child traumatised by a Prevent team, making it quite clear that to be remotely acceptable, use of mother-tongue could be regarded as treasonable. The naming of a child in another language by her grandparents is taken as a “see it” moment.
It’s the longest scene, though there are a couple cited above quite close. None though own quite the visceral revulsion anyone must feel towards enforcers, recently themselves under scrutiny. It’s where Hussain scores most. She’s deliberately avoided backstories and personally-enriched narrative till this last moment, which plays the richer for it.
When Hussain’s breakthrough Spun opened at the Arcola in July 2018, it stung with outrage, proved unforgettable and garnered awards on tour. Hussain, a powerful storyteller amongst much else, writes of a young Asian working-class woman from Newham trying her best to assimilate just before 7/7 – Maatin’s Duck, recently at the Arcola (originally Jermyn Street 2021) covers similar territory.
Here, Hussain’s instances dazzle like the language she uses. It’s an advance linguistically and conceptually on Spun; choices here amplify her gifts. It remains true though that the final scene with the briefest of backstories delivers a visceral slap only intermittent elsewhere: though several show almost the same power in embryo. Hussain intends the abstract, and embraces Churchill’s shorthand, but a stronger through-line than the satiric might have served her even more. Perhaps fewer, denser stories weaved in.
Here though, Hussain’s greatest strengths are allied to an excoriating sense of the limits of first language, how it colonises, even destroys mother tongues, and marginalises, even imprisons those who buck the mono-linguistic norm. No-one else has quite managed that. Hussain’s poised for remarkable things.