Word-Play at the Royal Court Theatre
The adage about sticks, stones and words gets a theatrical deconstruction in Rabiah Hussain’s new play for the Royal Court Theatre. Word-Play attempts to offer an extensive, incisive and emotive exploration of the proverbial notion that language “will never harm you”.
When the Prime Minister’s ad-libbed remarks on a live TV recording go viral, his aides scramble to redefine or renounce his careless speech. However, no apology from the PM is forthcoming and his words are already starting to ripple across society. What starts out as a political skit abruptly broadens into a wider disquisition of public-private discourse that feels both perennial (allusive labelling of “the community”, “the faith” and “different”, which could be anytime, anywhere) and yet also contextually specific (references to Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, Brexit and Islamophobia).
Once out from behind designer Rosanne Viz’s glass-windowed partition wall, the performers inhabit the blue-painted and carpeted Upstairs theatre space (evoking the short-lived, infamous 10 Downing Street press briefing room). As Issam Al Ghussain, Kosar Ali, Simon Manyonda, Sirine Saba and Yusra Warsama (costumed by Katie Price in casual clothes), move before, into and around the audience, it becomes transparent that Nimmo Ismail’s considered direction is implicating all in the play’s salient ideas.
The sketches in Hussain’s script flip between the abstract and reified, with the audience kept informed via titles projected on a simple digital screen. In one vignette, wry humour emerges from a frustrating discussion over the semantics of the term “normal”, while in another the dangers of the government’s PREVENT and “fundamental British values” strategies are rendered through a devastating monologue delivered powerfully by Warsama. While a few pieces suffer from florid writing, the cast are terrific in embodying the range of short-lived characters depicted within the 80-minute runtime. Their ability to shift between scenes of skilfully choreographed wordplay and relatable, intense intimacy is impressive.
However, Word-Play’s swift pace exacerbates its diffuseness. The playwright’s dramatic dissertation becomes cluttered as it hastens to depict example after example of semantic slipperiness and linguistic gaming. Ultimately, Hussain’s argument amounts to little more than the banal understanding that language will always be controlled, contested, confused and celebrated. Nevertheless, Hussain’s wordy play remains audacious in its intent, evocative in its performance and topical in its satire, even while it lacks novel insight into its profound core theme.
Images: Johan Persson
Word-Play is at the Royal Court Theatre from 20th July until 26th August 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.