LOVE, National Theatre

Most tragedies, or sad plays, are about dignity. Across every era, the most canonical tragedies are about dignity: Sophocles’ Theban Plays, basically everything Shakespeare ever wrote with a king in it – even post-Miller’s ‘Tragedy and the Common Man’ tragedies/sad plays (tragedies are sad plays) are about dignity. This is a sad play that’s about indignity. The indignity of growing old, the indignity of being forced into living in communal accommodation, the indignity of a shared bathroom, the indignity that we subject other people to through our own gaffes. I can only think of one canonical tragedy that concerns itself with indignity but it ends with the restoration of dignity. The problem is, if you’re not a monarch you can’t be restored. Here, there’s no redemption for those who, for whatever reason (we are never told a reason), have been forced into indignity.

And that’s part of what’s clever about LOVE: we are never told exactly why any of these people are in temporary accommodation. We know one is an immigrant, one is a refugee, we know the father of the family of new arrivals is jobless and that they were evicted, but in an age when we judge people faster than ever before based on indiscriminate facts, the fact that we don’t know everyone’s backstory is an advantage. We don’t see the characters for what happens in the job centre (although we hear their versions of it), we just see them for the people they are, and what they make of an extraordinarily difficult situation.

This is a tragedy of modern times. These are the people in our country who need our help the most, whose lives are the most tragic. So it makes sense to give them their own tragedy. The play doesn’t describe itself as a tragedy but this made me cry a lot more than any Shakespeare play ever has. The Shakespeare critic Jan Kott wrote that ‘Ancient tragedy is loss of life, modern tragedy is loss of purpose’. I agree: look at Aeschylus’ Oresteia versus Icke’s (‘What do I do?’). This tragedy, too, ends in loss of purpose. Barbara (Anna Calder-Marshall) has nothing to live for without her son, Colin (Nick Holder), who has walked out of the building after an argument. She wanders through the audience, nothing to do, nothing to say.

No play has ever affected me like this. Every inch of the acting is totally naturalistic, Flick-style. This might be as close as theatre can get to reality. It might not be as quotable as Icke’s Oresteia but it’s far more shocking, exposing things about the world we live in that we prefer not to think about, to feign ignorance of. And it does all of this without managing to be preachy. I was worried it would be something like this:

Somewhere really fucking stupid – like the nightclub setting of Everyman. Or maybe just a job centre, or a pound shop.

REFUGEE A. Hi. I’m a refugee. All my family are dead. I’d just like to say to the audience at the National that you should all donate to charity right now. Thank you.

REFUGEE B. Instead of talking about the details of what I’ve been through in a way that will make these intensely middle class people uncomfortable, I’m going to politicise my existence in a long soliloquy about Tory spending cuts.

WHITE MAN WHO VOTED LEAVE. I might have voted Brexit, but this is the National Theatre and it’s important for all of you to understand me. You might think that it’s patronising to say that you don’t understand me, but you obviously don’t. I’m going to explain everything that happened to me in my life to make a point about the most important day in British history, 23rd June 2016. This is the prelude to that Carol Ann Duffy play about Brexit.

Before I saw this, in my mind I had it associated with Rufus Norris’ manifesto that there are certain things that a national theatre should be showing people (which tends to have a sanctimonious tone) but it’s not like that at all. The fact that it doesn’t do makes it truly excellent. You can take the play as a lesson if you want, but you don’t have to. It will make you cry though.

It’s a funny play too, although most of the comedy is a double-edged sword. Colin, washing his mother’s hair, plays the age-old, slightly endearing prank of pretending cold water is nice and warm before pouring it over her hair. But then he washes her hair with Fairy because they can’t afford shampoo. Dean and Emma’s son practises his rapping in a rare moment alone in the communal area: his self-composed rhymes are about his own life and discovering ‘the mic’ in the most archetypal way possible but it’s also a striking remark about how rap is one of the only visible ways out of poverty for young boys.

Normally when I pick a favourite quote to go at the end of a review I pick something pithy, even if it isn’t my favourite line. The truth is, this play isn’t that pithy – it’s not that kind of play. There are some bittersweet lines, like:

‘When I’m gone you’ll be dancing’
‘I’ll have a fucking party’

But to fully explain one of the lines or moments that really upset me I’d have to explain the whole play and I’ve decided to try and write a review without spoilers in it. So I’ll leave it at this: ‘Is that my dressing gown?’


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