Sweat at Gielgud Theatre
There are Trump plays. There are Brexit plays. And then there are those plays that effortlessly capture an economic and societal landscape – the unravelling of communities, the seeds of racist populism and the perpetual con of capitalism – without needing to lick the boots of the zeitgeist, safe in the knowledge that the personal is always political.
Mostly taking place in the long year of George W Bush’s election – with a series of important scenes during the apex of the financial crisis sprinkled throughout – Sweat could be set in any one of those destitute manufacturing towns that were once the heart of the US (and UK) but are now graveyards of rust. Ending every day as bar props, Tracey (Martha Plimpton) and Cynthia (Clare Perkins) work the line at the local factory. Like every generation, their sons Jason (Patrick Gibson) and Chris (Osy Ikhile) do the same. But when Cynthia gets promoted off the floor, and the union starts to get squeezed, things fall apart. Half a life of service – and friendship – dismantled overnight.
The white rush of supremacy immediately asserts itself when the proverbial hits the fan, slurs tossed out and fingers pointed. The casual racism of Plimpton’s tough, protective Tracey becomes more and more calcified the worse things get. Her son leaves prison stained with the markings of the Aryan Brotherhood. It’s an example of the white working class opting for a false racial fealty instead of tackling the true reasons behind their financial struggles, a trend seen time and again in the last decade.
Lynn Nottage would be forgiven for making her white characters the bad guys. Instead, she is remarkably even-handed, constantly aware of the economic peril everyone is in. The bigger villains lurk off stage. Their presence is always felt, but only really seen in the suits Cynthia briefly wears and the flashes of politicians on the bar’s TV screen.
The bar itself is buried at the heart of a towering abandoned factory. Not only does Frankie Bradshaw’s design act as a reminder of the industrial ruin facing the barflies but provides an air of hip gentrification that is inevitably in the future of such locations.
It shows that this production is a transfer. Director Lynette Linton and her impeccable cast bring a real sense of history and weight to the play’s relationships. You feel the quarter of a decade of memories that sit between Tracey and Cynthia, the brotherly bond of Jason and Chris. Bartender Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) is the glue holding the group together when times are at their most fractious. It is through the shared lives of these characters that the politics of the piece emerge. And unlike dramas that more keenly try and chase the present moment, ten, twenty, thirty years from now it will be no less a great piece of theatre because of it.
Photo: Johan Persson
Sweat is at Gielgud Theatre from 7th June until 20th July 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.