Election says surprisingly little about the 2016 US election. It’s essentially a play about friendship, relationships, and identities that are banded around in politics. It focuses on politics’ human relevance: not in the sense of exposing the results of political decisions, but instead in highlighting where politics comes from – in people’s different social identities, views, and the conflicts between them. ‘Election’ is about five Oxford students, but it’s also about how those characters reflect wider social attitudes.
The play is set in a student room, as the five characters watch the US 2016 election results unfold. We see conflict emerge as they watch, initially between all five, and then splitting the stage to expose individual clashes: the frustrated Kit (Mary Lobo) and Arthur (Joshua Portway), and the idealistic Rori (Beata Kuczynska) and cynical Shaun (Jack Blowers).
The conflict between Kit and Arthur was particularly powerful, as an immigrant woman of colour attempts to articulate to a disgruntled and confused white man why she is “always angry”. Lobo was deeply compelling and watchable in portraying Kit’s frustration at Arthur’s inability to understand her oppression, constant marginalisation, and sense of “otherness” – particularly highlighted in one deeply resonating speech about “oriental” vegetables. These mutual frustrations were interesting to explore in the context of the characters’ friendship, and were also an example of how the play seems to reflect back to the election and wider society (reflecting the resentment and miscommunication that arises from discussions around “political correctness”).
In fact, this is potentially the flaw of the production. Its strong focus on the political, on conflict, and on using the characters to reflect wider social attitudes, meant that at times it felt as though it was forcing this theme a little too hard, and taking itself a little too seriously – with its sustained intensity undermining the realism of the characters as a group of students.
Shaun (Jack Blowers) often provided an effective relief from this, with his cynical yet sharp sarcastic comments throughout the heated scenes: think Chandler from FRIENDS, but with a slightly darker sense of humour. His conflict with Rori (Beata Kuczynska) is engaging, as he resents her Christian optimism for trying to “fix” his pessimism and self-loathing (complete with some laugh out loud moments, such as angrily referring to God as “space daddy”).
The directorial decision to split the stage into these two conflicts, and then later amalgamate them into one cacophonous argument is effective in developing the different kinds of relations on display here, as well as echoing the disorder of real politics. The set up particularly seems to trap Sam, engrossed in the election, and continuously reminds us of this backdrop by piercing the chaos with regular, emotionless political updates.
There was real chemistry between all the actors (particularly Arthur and Kit), and aside from some points of over-intensity, all were very believable. It might, however, have been nice for Sam to have been developed more as a character.
The design accentuated this chemistry well, with the student bedroom set working with the BT’s natural intimacy to create a feeling of domestic space. The use of lighting, to separate the external TV (broadcasting the election) from the domestic, was particularly effective, especially when subverted at the end.
Election was certainly thought-provoking, and I heard numerous people confirm it was “not what they expected”. It is an interesting and ambitious portrayal of how politics (and the framework for identities which politics creates) is entangled in our lives, and has both moving and laugh–out-loud moments. The concept certainly is intriguing, and perhaps with a little more humour, a little less seriousness, and a bit more development of certain characters, this could be a fantastic production.