A Royal Exchange Theatre and Bush Theatre Co-production
Written by James Fritz
Directed by Jude Christian
This is the world première of Parliament Square which received a Judges Award in The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in 2015. It explores whether political protests can change the world, and if a violent act of conscience could really make a profound difference or simply be deemed an act of madness.
This production is sparsely staged so it relies on the strength of the writing and the central performances. For a play which centres on a single act of high octane drama and covers a significant period of years in its aftermath, there is very little action. This is a play which may work better in a more intimate space and for me it felt like it’s natural home was the Royal Exchange studio space. It is however testament to the writing by James Fritz and the direction by Jude Christian that the play is always engrossing and the running time of 100 minutes flew by.
The opening scenes with the central character Kat and the starkly named Voice create an initial sense of confusion. Is this a discussion/argument between friends/family/lovers or is this an internal battle of conscience or possibly even a manifestation of a women with D.I.D (Dissociative Indentity Disorder)? The use of disembodied voice overs to convey a sense of family cleverly creates a growing awareness of what is about to happen to all those involved if Kat is successful in her plan
The internal struggle for Kat is beautifully played out by Esther Smith and the raw confusion around what to do is peppered by little gems of exquisite ordinariness. The mundane shock at the cost of a single peak time train fare to London or the poignancy of regret at no more sex or lasagne or the brutal finality of the last thing to see being “a fucking Tesco”. There is a definite sense of this women preparing to give up a real life full of love and laughter. It is less evident what is actually driving her toward this extreme act of defiance. It is both intriguing and frustrating that there is no obvious causal factor other than “things are getting worse”. There appears to be nothing remarkable about Kat and no signs of psychological dysfunction yet she is getting on a train with the sole purpose of auto-cremating in a public space.
Fire is the probably the most feared of all forms of death. The sociologist Emile Durkheim separated suicides into four types: the egoistic, the altruistic, the anomic (moral confusion), and the fatalistic. Perhaps self-immolation captivates so thoroughly because it wins on all counts. It is the ultimate act of both despair and defiance, a symbol at once of resignation and heroic self-sacrifice.
The simple act of counting is horrifyingly chilling. 15 seconds are all that must be endured and it is over. The objective achieved and the pain ceased. As the seconds are counted out in real time it is simply unbearable and the sudden rupture at 8 seconds is agonising relief.
The second half deals with the aftermath. It plays out in hospital and rehabilitation as Kat and her family are reunited and have to find their individual ways to come to terms with what has happened. Society is untouched and largely unaware of Kat’s sacrifice, it is her and her family who are irrevocably impacted by this single act of political defiance. In the end it is whether or not the politics of family life can remain the same or not.
The dramatic use of light/dark/light in the hospital scenes is extremely effective at creating Kats slow and agonising reawakening and recuperation. This device is further developed as we see flashes of life carrying on over the years. Hospital appointments, job promotions, family barbecues and a child’s birthdays convey the passing years as society becomes more fractured and threatening. The stop/start flashes of life are reminiscent of the flickers of a cigarette lighter in reluctant or wary hands. The allusion to fire is also poignantly captured in a passing remark about “hundreds suffocating and no one surviving above the 13th floor”. The comparisons to austerity measures, broken Britain and Grenfall Towers were clear.
The relationship with her mother is the most interesting and Joanne Howarth is excellent as another strong woman who despairs of what has happened but is pragmatic in what needs to happen next for Kat to have a viable future. She articulates her frustration, “What’s wrong with a fucking petition?” and protects her child with a blanket of silence in the belief that rather than be viewed as a hero she would be seen as a lunatic.
The interplay between Kat and Tommy her husband and with her rescuer Catherine work less well. Their characters all need more development to be more believable. The extreme nature of the core of this play is such that it does not feel authentic that a marriage would not have been severely impacted by Kats actions. The reappearance of her rescuer seems more of a plot device than an authentic action. I cannot believe that the character would not have feared a similar failed outcome as that of Kat. It is a very moving final scene but I can’t help seeing the closing scene as either Kat revisiting Parliament Square after years of unremitting pain and finishing what she started, or with her and her rescuer Catherine standing together in a final unified act of protest.
Royal Exchange Theatre 18 – 28th October
Bush Theatre 30th November – 6th January