Royal Exchange, Manchester.
20 October 2017.
Kat is a young woman, who has decided she must sacrifice herself for a greater cause. She never specifies what she is protesting about or the change she is seeking to achieve. Nor do we see how she reaches that threshold. When we meet her she is ready to head to London, to Parliament Square, to carry out her act of protest. She questions her ability to leave her husband and young daughter but there is no wavering over her reasons for taking action. She’s convinced she should – it’s only a question of if she can do it.
James Fritz’s new play ‘Parliament Square‘ (winner of a Judges Award in the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting) bravely asks us to reflect on what drives people to commit serious acts of protest and how effective such actions are.
Structurally the play is ambitious and intriguing. Look closely and it follows a central linear narrative but around that it changes shape and perspective throughout. Fritz has a track record of experimenting with dramatic form. His earlier work ‘Ross and Rachel‘ was a monologue with two characters – here he opens with Kat’s inner dialogue played out on stage by two actors. We hear the voices of people she encounters on her way to London but don’t see them. Kat’s family loom large in her mind but they only appear as fully formed characters later. To start with, our sole view on the word is Kat’s and her focus is on steeling herself to carry out that act of protest. It’s only after that act has taken place, that we hear other thoughts, different ideas and broader consideration of the rights, wrongs and effectiveness of such acts.
There are clever shifts in time and pace. The opening dialogue begins with a rat-tat-tat speed and urgency, though it’s actually a slowing down of conflicting and overlapping inner thoughts to a conversational speed. Later, a long drawn-out painful recovery from injury is condensed in to a smooth sequence of encounters on a hospital ward.
This experimentation with form comes together most effectively in a series of interchanges where lives go on, time accelerates and years just disappear. The only fixed points are birthdays. The script pushes down hard on the fast forward button, gently releasing it now and then for brief glimpses of random conversations. Sitting on stools, the cast circle Kat. She spins around to face them as they speak. There’s a sense of waste and irrelevance. Is this what a life half-lived is like? As the voices of Kat’s family and friends come and go, there is also an undercurrent of danger, of a chaotic world developing just outside their inward-looking circle. Is this where apathy leads? Neighbourhoods in decline, communities disintegrating, increasing crime and civil disorder. This fearful, uncertain place is peppered with allusions to our here and now. Even those with money, those able to move home and leave places behind can’t hide from this forever. One by one, the actors lift their legs off the floor, some kneeling at first, until all of them are standing on their stools as if in fear of a plague of rats or trying to escape from a rising flood.
Viewpoints are increasingly ambiguous. Once we step outside of Kat’s inner turmoil, perspectives are constantly on the move. Kat’s mother argues about the futility of taking any action, her husband actively choses not to know her motives and others are simply curious. Fritz’s characters are complex and their views develop and change over the course of the play.
That sense that things aren’t fixed, that the world is in flux, is reflected in Fly Davis’s design. Nothing is nailed down on stage, furniture is on wheels, the stage is often bare. At the beginning, as Kat moves closer to her act of protest, the few items of domesticity dotting the stage (a kettle, a toothbrush holder, a toy and a lamp) are gradually packed away one by one to emphasise the letting go of her old life. That removal of distracting clutter also asks us to make a mental leap, to focus in tightly on the ideas being shared.
The cast work hard to keep the story moving forward and keep the energy flowing. As Catherine, a young woman who commits a seemingly heroic act, Seraphina Beh is wonderfully real – at first overly honest and slightly awkward, she becomes increasingly troubled by the injustices she witnesses. Joanne Howarth as Kat’s mother is plain-speaking, practical and provides some welcome humour. Esther Smith as Kat is on stage throughout. She is full of passion and yet reassuringly ordinary, committed to her cause but not fanatical. Through Smith’s tireless understated performance we become invested in Kat – we want to understand.
There is a much to think about and the play covers a lot of ground. As well as reflecting on what drives people to sacrifice their lives, it conversely shows our inbuilt survival instinct – how even after a shocking injury there is an urge to keep going, to almost unconsciously keep putting one foot in front of another. At several points, there is consideration of how the urge to protect family and friends can also feed in to a selfish indifference to wider society. We also see how rather than confront difficulties in their lives, people possess an ability to create myths or just tell lies that allow them to carry on regardless. With each embellishment and retelling, everyone comes to believe those made-up stories as if they are actually true.
Some of the choices the production makes are provocative. When a protest goes wrong it is portrayed in terrible agonising detail, while a successful act of self-destruction is transformed into a simple abstract moment of beauty. At one point, Kat slips over the line from selfless acts of protest, to encouraging someone else to do something dangerously life-changing. That critical change is left unexamined – it’s there for us to notice and make sense of ourselves later.
Director Jude Christian builds a coherent engaging whole from a complex play that could drift messily in other hands. The production does however struggle at times to get to grips with the scale of the theatre space – it’s pared-back approach perhaps better suited to a more intimate setting.
That aside, there is genuine concern here for where society is heading and the questions asked seem heartfelt. The writing has an urgency and complexity which is served well by the powerful, nuanced performances. ‘Parliament Square‘ asks a lot of its audience, and it keeps up that pressure right to the end. As if on principle, it refuses to make things easy for us – and just as it seems to be tying everything up neatly, it suddenly leaves us with even more to think about.