Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse
In the world of Sweat, money is a precious resource, given away jealously in crumpled single notes. It turns sons against mothers and makes instant enemies of strangers. While the top dogs sit out of sight and reach in air-conditioned offices, the working class on the factory floor are forced to look for a nearer target to blame for their lot. It’s a system that its hapless pawns remain perpetually grateful for despite its back-breaking drudgery, and a crucible of “us versus them” culture which proves a harbinger of the surge of fierce support for Trump that is to come.
Playwright Lynn Nottage presents a pocket of life – painstakingly researched – at the bottom of the food chain in Reading, Pennsylvania, an industrial city that is the poorest of its size in the US. Here, the lives of a group of colleagues and friends are characterised by the intersection of race and class. What are the intrinsic values we place on class and racial statuses, and how does one’s race undermine one’s class status, or vice versa? To which group should one show allegiance, and should personal success ever take precedent? And how, when one knock too many hits you and your family, does adversity feed intolerance?
The two-hour-25-minute runtime puts this play on the longer end of the spectrum, but it’s necessary here. Sweat draws you into the intimate conversations of this group, allowing familiarity to strengthen and the story to carefully unravel. In the density of its personal relationships, the piece recalls Shane Meadows’s This Is England; even the characters who do heinous things invite our sympathy. When you’re a victim of circumstance, how free is your free will?
There are no bad performances, but Clare Perkins and Martha Plimpton as best friends Cynthia and Tracey are magnetic. Lynette Linton’s lively direction is spot-on. A bar fight breaks out (choreographed by Kate Waters) and it’s scintillating, beginning with the crowd spoiling like tigers, and culminating in an explosive sequence.
Frankie Bradshaw’s set design conjures the shabby neon warmth of the local pub. A TV screen blares snippets of the Bush administration but there’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it news bulletin about the dramatic success of the Harry Potter books, a golden but oh-so-rare example of a working-class woman whose storytelling skills pulled her out of poverty. The American Dream insists that everybody has the power to pull through if they only work hard. But when there’s always somebody who will work for a lower wage, desperation becomes a tool for those at the top of the system.
Nottage has created an unforgettable group of souls, united in sweat but divided by poverty. This is a stunning, insightful, essential piece of work that posits: if intolerance is born of desperation, it is desperation that must be done away with first.
Photos: Johan Persson
Sweat is at the Donmar Warehouse from 7th December until 26th January 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.