Lynn Nottage’s Sweat was the first proper play I fell in love with. I read it in the heat of last summer. I was heady and stressed from exams and as soon as my sweaty palms had finished the last page I started right back at the beginning again, furiously highlighting and annotating each page. It reveals itself to be the slow burning tragedy of contemporary America. Lynette Linton’s production of Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse feels like it aches at its very core. Frankie Bradshaw’s design bears down on the characters; machinery hangs and creaks in every corner, covering the stage in an industrial shadow.
Set in Reading, Pennsylvania, Sweat tracks eight lives over eight years in the poorest town in America. This play requires a visceral sense of place. A sense that the bar run by Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) is not just a recreational centre but a meeting place, a place of conversation, of change, and of hopelessness. The bar is the place where identities are forged and where they eventually shatter, too. The tables are coated with layers of spilt drinks – generations of workers sitting down to talk and rest after finishing their days. In a bar, the private becomes the public; Nottage shows us a microcosmic manifestation of grief for an America that doesn’t exist anymore. It doesn’t matter how many generations your family have worked in the factory because you are still locked out with everyone else when the tides turn.
I think it’s too easy to say that Sweat predicted the white working class Trump voters’ distrust of the government. Nottage did not prophesy the Rust Belt’s turn to a wildly unfit Republican candidate, she just decided to look where no one else wanted to. The dedication to a forensic level of research into Reading is the undercurrent for this dialogue driven piece. Nottage’s characters are tired, frustrated, and endlessly exhausted, all because of a government that’s systematically disregarding and exploiting its workers in favour of capital. It feels like she really sits with these characters, looks them in the eye and attempts to have a real conversation with them.
One of the most poignant moments in Linton’s production comes when Martha Plimpton’s Tracey exposes herself as deeply vulnerable; she stands outside the bar, her hands holding a cigarette, shaking. As her shell cracks, and her rage bubbles, she misfires. Instead of propelling her despair towards the top, she looks to those standing right beside her. Linton and Nottage reveal the invisible – the poorest town is America is put onto a stage and we are shocked when it turns violent, when the anger, the grief bubbles over and into the spaces between the seats. Over the two hours and eight years of the play, a knife is pushed slowly, steadily, methodically into the hearts of the residents and workers of Reading. A bomb has been sitting in the middle of the stage, in the middle of this country this whole time and we’re still shocked when it explodes.
Sweat is on at Donmar Warehouse until 2nd February. More info here.