There’s no set in the Jerwood Downstairs, the better to reflect Anders Lustgarten’s theme of austerity run riot, but while a play can happily survive ‘without décor’ (indeed a great many do, making the trumpeting of this one rather redundant) the austere approach taken to both character and plotting leaves it as thin as a manifesto.
There are positives: Lustgarten’s politics are mostly laudable, he has written a handful of excellent speeches and there is something exciting about seeing an all-out protest play, one that doesn’t shy from didacticism or hide its revolutionary fervour under a bushel. It’s a pleasure to see Ferdy Roberts revive some of his snarling copper role from Three Kingdoms, and a few scenes of financiers run amok with the profit-potential of social discord are effectively grotesque, but though the villainous convince in their villainy, the righteous are handed a bum deal with two-dimensional characterisations and cut and paste motivations.
The play hinges on an unnecessary conceit, the introduction of Unity Bonds which ‘transfer the cost of social repair from the taxpayer to the private sector at a healthy return’, relying on the amoral (or immoral) forces of the market to ensure harmony. It’s a neat enough contraction of austerity and the privatisation of public services, but it’s not clear why they need contraction. If anything the imposition muddies the waters, it would be a chuckle on The Thick of It but it’s so close to the truth, and within a dramatic world which relies so heavily on veracity, that it weakens the overall argument.
This ‘sort-of-dystopia’ throws up specific problems too, a scene in which a workman fits a coin–operated electricity meter to collect a ‘debt-tax’ from a old woman is undermined by the fact that coin-operated electricity and gas metres are already an established means by which major corporations fuck the poor on a regular basis. The retired nurse has plenty of reasons to rue the government’s policies on taxation and pensions without the invention of an evil new bail-out tax.
The images of social discord are strangely selected and emerge at odd angles to the main thrust of the narrative. A young man’s vicious racial attack on an African man working as a cleaner is never interrogated, merely left to hang as a loose consequence of the government and the private sector’s careless greed. Their later encounter at the play’s conclusion feels forced and even untruthful; if it attempts an optimistic message about universal understanding, it emerges from a persistent view of humanity as one government decision away from virulent race-hate. We’re one hot meal away from despicable racism, apparently; except we’re not, and the experiences of London’s poorest communities offer frequent proof that, even at our lowest ebbs, we are better than that.
When a sense of community emerges it is through a thinly-veiled Occupy meeting, where the disparate characters we have encountered have come together to put greed and austerity on trial. There’s warmth and humour, some well-directed but affectionate barbs at the oddities of left-wing activism, but also a sense that the narrative has lost direction and the drama devolved into a glossary of revolutionary ideology. There’s an ex-banker, there to ask questions like ‘Why don’t I know about this stuff?’, and a band of career activists and the discontent to provide stock answers. Bizarrely, a handful of Lustgarten’s points seem to emerge from the opposite end of the political spectrum: there’s an attack on Health and Safety that’s pure Clarkson and a jab at lefties drinking Starbucks that Louise Mensch would find bloody hilarious. To save it there’s also the burning point at the heart of the Occupy movement: that to work towards the right questions is a worthy aim even when the answers aren’t yet forthcoming. It’s frustrating that this vital truth isn’t given the primacy or the engagement that it deserves.
Against these criticisms it can only be refreshing to see agitprop given a platform as expansive as the Royal Court: more of this is needed, but a play like this will have to work harder to provoke the hearts and minds of its audience.
Read the Exeunt interview with Anders Lustgarten.