Following the US Presidential election in 2016, a slew of reporters were hastily dispatched to the backwaters of de-industrialised America to discover why large sections of the working class population there thought Donald Trump was the answer to their problems.
They needn’t have made the trip. This play by Lynn Nottage, first performed in 2015, has it all and it got there before any of the political commentators did. And as it has developed – off-Broadway in 2016, then on Broadway in 2017 where it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama before transferring to the West End – its diagnosis of a white working class left rootless and disenfranchised by globalisation and automation has only been confirmed by the mainstream media. Though its message has been diluted through repetition, Sweat’s characters are engaging enough to carry its audience through what must seem a well-worn tale by now.
Jessie, Cynthia and Tracey are three blue collar factory workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, one of the poorest cities in the US. Inheriting their jobs from their parents, they feel they have a stable, if laborious, post for life with wages protected by a strong union.
From the bar where they all drink, they occasionally glance up at the TV at a distant political class in Washington, who spout incomprehensible acronyms that nevertheless exert influence on their small-town existence. “What the fuck is NAFTA? Sounds like a laxative,” laughs Tracey. “You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico,” answers a prescient Stan.
At two and a half hours, this isn’t a short play, but Nottage’s writing is impressively efficient. In that time, she covers deindustrialised alienation, racial scape-goating, class betrayal, poverty-induced substance abuse, female friendship and the rise of the millennial precariat using only three scene changes and a cast of nine. Inspired by numerous interviews with real-life Reading residents, it feels less like fiction and more like distilled truth told by a cast of straight-forward, likeable characters trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got.
Anyone worth their New Yorker subscription won’t learn anything new from Sweat, but they will laugh, cry and marvel at this flawlessly executed play.
In his latest turn as deposed despot – following his cinematic portrayal of the twisted Beria in 2017’s Death of Stalin – Simon Russell Beale triumphs as Shakespeare’s doomed diva. His veteran delivery contains just the right amount of sarcasm to convey the king’s unbending short sightedness right up until his closing moments, but he also allows us to feel his pain, despite the character’s shortcomings.
Leo Bill’s vengeful Bolingbroke courses with a fearsome pragmatism, the perfect counterbalancing to Beale’s pathetic prima donna. Credit must go also to John Mackay as York, his towering, lean frame adding to his menacing presence; he skillfully balances the wicked, bullying uncle with moments of laugh-out-loud physical comedy.
Comparisons with the current geopolitical climate are impossible to ignore, and make for a stimulating subtext. A leader who explicitly and vocally holds himself in high esteem, surrounding himself only with flattering advisors; a ruler whose authority is constantly called into question, and who is ultimately forced to admit that through his dealings, he has made “proud majesty a subject, [and] state a peasant.”
Costume and set is well handled. Gardening gloves and soil make sense given the burials, both metaphorical and physical.
Whilst the decision to abolish stage exits and keep the cast onstage throughout is brave, it does mean characters are forced to lie like sleeping dogs for stretches of the performance. But it ultimately pays off, helping sustain the tension, which is compounded by a pulsating, ticking score, somewhere between the first chase scene in Drive, and Hans Zimmer’s stopwatch in Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Unmissable for Shakespeare fans, or anybody eager to be wooed by Beale’s hypnotic soliloquies.