BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS
The tension mounted as the Donmar’s production of Lynn Nottage’s award-winning play SWEAT reached its climax. As two angry men confronted each other on the stage, someone in the theatre (honest, it wasn’t me) cried out in fear before a blow was struck.
We all flinched as the violence erupted in one of the most horrifying stage fights I’ve seen, and we were visibly shaken as the play ended.
The actors? Not so much. This was the Director’s forum performance and ten minutes after taking their bows before an appreciative audience, they trooped on again to discuss the play with us.
The action takes place in an industrial town in north-east America, and how the factory closures affect families and friends. Unpromising material for a night out, perhaps, but the Assistant Director Tom Ellerby told us that it had been a major success in the USA. Why had it been such a hit, he asked the cast, what made it so special.
The only American in the cast, Martha Plimpton, jumped in, telling us that Lynn Nottage is a highly respected writer, whose previous plays had addressed specific issues – but SWEAT hit a general nerve, touching upon a common experience of economic uncertainty. It had opened just before Trump was elected, and highlighted the rise of populism, inherent racism and how pitting people against each other results in the fear of one’s neighbours.
“That’s what I was going to say,” said Osy Ikhile wryly, when Ms Plimpton paused for breath., and Sebastian Viveros added that everyone can relate to the story of how people react when they’ve had a steady job and a steady income, and this is taken away from them.
Sule Rimi agreed, and pointed out the injustice of people having worked their whole lives, only to be denied the promised reward of a security and a pension – the non-existent pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Martha Plimpton jumped in again. She described the de-industrialisation of the USA, and the intractability of the unions in failing to modernise. Going back to how it was before is not economically feasible; progress always triumphs. With her colleagues, she described their visit to the steel-works in Sheffield, where they were shown round the foundry by some retired workers. This factory had employed 15,000 but gradually the work-force was reduced to 1,500, and while the actors were on the factory floor, surrounded by enormous industrial machinery, they saw barely 20 people. And yet the industry had remained viable because of modernisation, progress and compromise (but at what human cost?). In the US, the unions had refused to compromise, industries were closed and jobs lost - the clock cannot be turned back despite Trump's empty promises to 'make America great again'.
Leanne Best startled me by speaking up in a strong northern accent (how did she lose that on stage?) to say that she had grown up in Liverpool in the 80s, and remembered the hardships that people experienced then. She could relate to the play, which she found both timely and timeless – but it’s not just a docu-drama: the characters are fully realised, and when she read it, she could she that it was as great a drama as the works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Tom summed it up by saying that Lynn Nottage takes live issues and distils them into a group of friends meeting in a bar.
How did the actors create the warmth and camaraderie that is essential to the play before in dissipates in the course of the action? First of all, everyone heaped praise on director Lynette Linton, formerly Assistant Director at the Donmar, and flexing her muscles on this stage for the first time. Martha said that Lynette had been phenomenal, creating an environment of absolute rigor and trust among the cast. Everyone was involved in the gestation of every character. They had created a timeline for each one, using a different coloured tape for each character, and marking on it the events in their lives and where they intersected and how their relationships changed. It was a long time, said Martha, since she had experienced this type of creativity.
Martha hadn’t been in the play in the US, and hadn’t even seen it on Broadway, as she was working elsewhere. One of her friends had played her part, and she was now glad she hadn’t seen it, in case she copied that performance – to compare is to despair. I have to say that it’s a part she not only seizes with both hands, but by the throat as well.
The play seemed tailored for the intimate open space of the Donmar stage; would it play as well in a proscenium-arch theatre? Clearly, the actors wouldn’t be averse to trying that out; it had played in conventional theatres in America.
There is so much to explore and discuss in this rich play, but the discussion had to come to a close. We left the theatre on a high – but I had a profound regret that we hadn’t persuaded more of loyal supporters to join us on our earlier group visit to this incomparable work.