‘All of England was once a lawn. The whole of the country, with its uplands and lowlands, with its suburbs and towns, was once the quintessence of lawn. […] And it was in the name of the English lawn that the enemy within was kept down..’
This passage about the politics of the English lawn from Lars Iyer’s 2014 novel, Wittgenstein Jr., lodged itself in my head halfway through James Fritz’s new play, Start Swimming. Hardly surprising given that one of the play’s 11 nameless characters happened to be shouting ‘take back every lawn around the world!’ at the time.
Start Swimming begins with grass. Well, more precisely, it begins with economics journalist Paul Mason and his play Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere which appeared at the Young Vic earlier this year. Asked to create a new work in response to Mason’s meditation on the failure of recent revolutions and various protest movements, Start Swimming is the result of a collaboration between Fritz and the Young Vic’s Taking Part company. First there was Mason. Then there was Fritz. Now there is grass.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’m standing on the grass.’
This simple act of one person standing on the grass triggers a tortuous shock from an unnamed, malevolent puppet-master, a shock which zaps painfully through everyone on stage.
‘You’re not allowed to stand on the grass.’
Wrong answer. Receive another shock. Various scenarios are played out on and around the grass, this lawn embedded in Britain’s heart. Stand on the grass. Get told off. Get fired. Get evicted. Get sent to jail. Get fed up. Refuse to move. Protest. Get broken. Commit suicide. Regroup. Make a stand. On the grass.
Fritz’s play is both a caustic critique of contemporary society’s treatment of young people and an exploration of the role of language in the perpetuation and justification of the practices under critique. Fritz writes in word games. There’s something circular, vaguely palindromic, about the tale of these 11 youths — their struggles against powerful, invisible, controlling forces begin and end the same way and seem set to continue ad infinitum. If one could read hope into the final words sung and then spoken in unison by the cast – ‘I’m not going anywhere’ – the form of the play seems to suggest that these youths will be trapped forever in a Sisyphean struggle against the powers that be. It’s an endless cycle of powerlessness, resistance, hope, powerlessness, resistance, hope. If such a reading of Start Swimming leaves little room for the ability of Fritz’s play to inspire revolutions, it nevertheless appreciates its potential as a mirror reflecting the frustration and fear of today’s youth as they attempt to find their place in an increasingly-unforgiving world.
Start Swimming was on until 13 August 2017 at Summerhall, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe 2017. Click here for more details.