Camden Fringe 2008
Cresent Theatre Production
Venue: Etcettera Theatre
The Establishment, a production by Crescent theatre is a play about a dystopia that never took place with some – and perhaps totally accidental- references to a Nazi-like regime placed within the context of an extreme form of capitalism that resonates of the 19th century Industrial revolution. It is, however, an ambitious piece that tries to deal with women’s surrender to the masculine power in an hour-long slot. And it definitely shows some convincing acting and directing.
The sort of dystopia that The Establishment tries to re-create is that of the world under the tyranny of an all-men regime that forces women out of work, to marry through a ‘matching’ system and to bear children– it is important to note that pregnancies outside this sort of arranged marriage system are not permitted. Eventually, however, these women are forced to work for a data processing centre once ‘the war’ breaks out. On stage at the beginning of the play, we are introduced to the life of these female office workers, Rita (Heather Arness), Freddie (Caroline Daniel), Sarah (Jessica Woolf) and Elsie (Denise Free), their team-leader. The establishment communicates with them through a phone that does not ring but lights up at every call. One of their co-workers, Nadya (Nadia Nadyf) has been absent from work and speculations on her possible pregnancy out of the prescribed wedlock create panic among the girls, especially the most emotional of the three, Freddie. Among the rumours of a possibly spy, Elsie attempts to restore order while Sebastian (Odin Tikander), the manager from the establishment checks on the girls’ work on a ‘list’. The first half moves slowly with the girls dealing with Nadya’s supposed disappearance until half way through the play Nadya enters and collapses on stage, suffering from what it looks like a miscarriage or an abortion gone wrong. Few revelations and disappearances later and the play comes to a close with a sinister and darker outlook on the female condition in a society dominated by men.
The references (the military innuendoes, the sort of greeting used between the manager and the girls, the impending war) are random and unclear, but, even if purely accidental, all seem to allude to a Nazi-like regime, where women rather than the Jews are the victims and rather than concentration camps data processing centres are the place of imprisonment. In a way the play turns back the clock in time and suggests what could have happened, to women and to a society if a Nazi-like regime would have enforced working conditions, though, more typical of an 19th century industrial revolution society than 1930s/40s Germany. One could suspect also that the piece is, in fact, projected toward a future dystopia; it presents the horrific possibilities if women had lost their right to equality and if feminism had failed. That would make this play an interesting piece going beyond the beyond- beyond feminism, beyond the crisis of masculinity, beyond post-femisms and returning to a patriarchal society of the most extreme and radical kind. However, the audience is left with a seemingly old-fashioned victimization of women at the bottom of society, presented as ‘bearing machines’, and misused workforce in a country in a state of war.
The writing tries to say too much in such a little space and with too much at stake, and leaves the audience waiting for the moment of surprise and disbelief that was shortly announced at the play captivating start. This is, however, the risk that any writer might encounter when trying to represent a dystopic reality by avoiding the banality and the ridiculous of many films and novels of the kind.
A clearer plot, less predictability and possible less characters on stage (Nadya is less than five minutes on stage, the character of Sebastian and the new three girls appearing in the last scene of the play do not feel really needed) could have helped Jessica’s writing, which, nevertheless, succeeds in developing the characters’ journey in their complexity and depicts moments of true compassions for these poor women. The organic performances -especially those of Caroline Daniel (Freddie) and Heather Arness (Rita)- and the clean directing help to maintain the audience’s attention even in moments where the story seems to turn in circles.
On the whole, The Establishment is a good effort by a new ensemble to create a sinister dystopia that luckily has not as yet taken place.