Seeing a dictionary on stage at a performance is a bit like waiting for a speech to start, knowing it will begin with “Webster’s dictionary defines friendship as…”. There’s a sense of the book as a heavy, dull weight of rightness and usefulness. As a final answer. Not, as it is in Jamal Harewood’s Word, as the jumping-off point for some serious and needed negotiations about words and their dangerous malleability.
There is so much silence at the start of Word, just Harewood with tape over his mouth and his socks pulled up, standing still in the centre of the room. That Harewood is going to be silent means that the audience has to behave themselves. We are asked via a script, read by an audience member, to provide an icebreaker. There’s a joke about marsupials getting their koalafications. There are concerted efforts to diffuse the mounting sense that no-one is going to have a very nice time.
Because no one’s really leading the piece, everyone has to act co-operatively to plan out the competitive activities that Harewood’s script demands. There’s policing of the teams, swapping of roles, and generous applause for anyone who has to go on stage to do anything. Into this atmosphere of panicked hospitality, someone is asked their favourite word to say. It is ‘bitch’. Someone else’s is ‘elbow’.
The game, if that’s what it is, unfolds like an extended version of hangman. I can’t tell if its lack of slickness is deliberate or not. In the performance I see, the MC definitely misses pages, skips part of the game, tallies totals wrong. This keeps the audience tense and stressed, which means they don’t ever relax enough to really reveals themselves. (Both teams guess that the worst thing that has ever been said behind Harewood’s back is ‘four eyes’. No one believes this is actually true.)
Harewood’s script continually asks that we close our eyes and perceive this piece as a gameshow, with neon lights and flashing podiums. I don’t think it helps the pacing of the show to continually take these time-outs. Plus, the atmosphere in the room is less gameshow, more forced corporate bonding exercise, or party games at a stranger’s house. Harewood could have capitalised on this feeling, even formalised and integrated it, but Word feels overly wedded to the piece-as-gameshow concept.
The final game of hangman is made all the more excruciating by the fact that everyone knows what word that Harewood is asking us to write on his chest, but no-one is guessing the right letters. T? No. E? No. Our MC has never played hangman before, so keeps drawing too much of the man to be hanged when someone gets a letter wrong. Again, this affects the ability of the teams to ever become properly competitive with each other, and maintains everyone’s sense of wariness and mistrust.
It’s difficult to explain the power of the final image of this piece, this thought-experiment, without explaining the piece away. The dictionary on stage stops being the best man’s best friend and becomes an enemy. Suddenly, all the previous good will, collaboration and collusion, of following the rules of the game, looks like complicity and blind trust in a system of written words that have enormous, terrifying power. And it looks like that because that’s what it is.
Word is currently touring the UK. For future dates, and more details, click here.