The sense of unrelenting hopelessness described to me by a Greek woman about her homeland recently was fresh in my mind when I went to see Anders Lustgarten’s new play.
In Greece, people are experiencing what it’s like when an economic imperative rules every aspect of one’s life: from the seemingly arbitrary mergers of schools and the cutting of pensions to the women who are told they cannot take their babies home until the midwifery costs have been paid.
Its powerful title, If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep, seems to promise an antidote and creative subversiveness to match Our Great Circus, a political play that has been attracting record audiences at the National Theatre of Northern Greece.
Under the direction of Simon Godwin, Lustgarten’s play leads us swiftly through a world where every sphere of life is cruelly subjected to market principles. Opportunities for investors are maximised in a government scheme to privatise the costs of social dysfunction. An overburdened hospital, reliant on unqualified volunteers, discovers the best way to reduce waiting lists is to refuse to let people get on them.
In Joan, a hard-up pensioner played by Susan Brown, there is a constant reminder of what is at stake. Forced to have a meter installed in her home until she pays off a debt, she tells the workman: “Fought a war for this. Fought a war for our rights. Not the Germans. After that. A war against our lot. The elite.”
The rest of the cast, Meera Syal and Lucian Msamati among them, romp through the 75 minute performance, the majority changing roles a couple of times before the action moves to a mock courtroom in a disused building during the latter part of the play.
It is here, in the Court of Public Opinion, that bankers and the financial system are to stand trial. Undeniably, it was gratifying to hear some of the shrewd arguments against austerity, including the illegality of imposing debt on many for the benefit of a few. The courtroom setting also gave dramatic impetus to the confrontation between failed academic aspirant Ryan (Daniel Kendrick) and McDonald (Msamati), a former cleaner and now health and safety officer, who was stabbed in a bar brawl, sparked by racist abuse in a Wetherspoon’s.
At times didactic and little preachy, the play suffered from trying to say too much. By the end it was even less clear what Lustgarten was trying to say. Perhaps, as Kelly says, you can’t take on a system without “a new space and a new language”. In imagining a future of unfettered market capitalism, while at the same time seeming to look back at the Occupied movement, Lustgarten seemed to be searching for both.
Watching grassroots activists passionately sharing knowledge they picked up from Wikipedia didn’t provide the kind of resistance I was hoping for, or the sleep-disturbing kind of experience that the play’s title alluded to.
Perhaps it is the seemingly foolish things that can strike at the foundation of a great edifice and, as good old Kelly points out when explaining the revolutionary gathering’s decision-making process: “Anyone can chuck a Molotov. Only a genuine revolutionary can make it through an affinity group.”
If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep is at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, until 9 March 2013.
This article first appeared on WordsofColour.co.uk