In this moment of political crisis, art is one of the essential ways we can make sense of the chaos. Theatres in particular are perfect spaces for exploring the interaction between private lives and public affairs, between individuals and the world that spins around them. An auditorium is both contained and universal. It might present itself as a domestic locus one moment and yet symbolize a global setting the next. From where we sit we swallow stories about specific characters and their experiences whilst simultaneously learning about ourselves and the rest of the world outside. The expansiveness of storytelling means everyone gets an invite to the conversation.
Parliament Square, playing at the Bush Theatre until the 6th January, is one play that not only urges us to think about how the outside world is implicated, but whose very subject is the interplay of our individual and collective circumstances. At the centre of the piece is one drastic and theatrical act of protest. We follow one woman’s journey to this decisive moment and are then presented with the consequences of her decision. The audience sees the ways it effects those she loves, and slowly get a sense of the impact (or lack thereof) it has had on wider society.
The play, written by James Fritz, juggles numerous themes and, in the process, employs a range of stylistic devices: internal monologue, recorded dialogue and time-hopping set-pieces. It is amongst all this variety, however, that the one essential flaw emerges. With so much to say, Fritz’s writing fails to examine any of his ideas in serious depth. It is unclear what is actually being said, or indeed what questions Fritz is trying to lend his focus to. The script is undoubtedly interesting but it falls somewhat short of being genuinely penetrating.
The production takes place in the round, ensuring intimacy and complicity and once again affirming the ubiquitous relevance of an otherwise personal story. When the play starts, our protagonist is sleeping, roused by the cries of another actress, seemingly some sort of inner-voice. For the first-half, these two women move fluidly around the stage as we witness the different obstacles encountered and lies told on Kat’s journey to the center of British government, waiting for the ’15 seconds’ in which she intends to carry out her plans. Recalling Warhol’s ’15 minutes of fame’, this public event that the action accelerates rapidly towards is only revealed at the last moment. It is an upsetting and macabre spectacle, but given how frequently it has been invoked beforehand is somewhat disappointing in its staging which proves unoriginal and undramatic.
Esther Smith is mostly successful at drawing a portrait of a women beset by private and political dilemmas although, at some points, lacked drive. One does not get the impression that this was a radical who would genuinely resort to extremist protest, nor even someone with any clear ideological bent. Joanne Howarth on the other hand is impressive as a mother trying to come to terms with what her daughter has done. Understated and convincing, she cleverly balances an unconditional maternal care with disapproval and even anger. Likewise, Kelly Hotten is great as a recovery physiotherapist. Offered far too little stage-time, she is an engaging and likeable presence.
Watching this play that acknowledges a country that ‘feels sick’, it is hard not to admire Fritz’s attempt to begin a much needed conversation on the nature, effects and ethics of protest in Britain. Ultimately, he seems to say, it is the simple pleasures of life that pull us towards defensive activism but that can also lure us into the relative safety of political apathy. If all we really want to do is ‘have a bath, have sex, eat lasagna’, the question remains: is that something to fight for? Or is it something to indulge in while we have it, even if such a life remains exclusive and unsustainable?
Parliament Square has its moment but too often shies away from taking any explicit standpoints on the issues it explores. The stage when the play opens is bedecked with a jumble of household objects. Ultimately, it is this image that the production most resembles. It lacks clarity and achieves only an assemblage of half-formed thoughts. Although it gestures to the moment we are living through, it still fails to decode the chaos.