Dirty Protest at the Royal Court: Plays in a Bag

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Writers: Matthew Bulgo, Sandra Bendelow, Kath Chandler & Alun Saunders

Directors: Sara Lloyd, Mared Swain & Kate Wasserberg

Dirty Protest, the Welsh theatre company dedicated to staging new work, presented the first in their series of Plays in a Bag nights as part of the Royal Court ‘Surprise Theatre’ season. Promoted as a ‘different surprise performance each night, from writers and theatre-makers with thrillingly distinctive voices’, this season aims, in the words of playwright Caryl Churchill, to evoke the feeling ‘of waiting for a curtain to go up and not knowing what was going to happen’. Yet the biggest surprise of the evening is that it has been nearly a decade since a play by a Welsh writer has been performed at the Royal Court, the spiritual home of new writing in the UK.  The range and number of talents Dirty Protest have discovered in recent years would seem to indicate that an exciting era of dramatic writing is dawning in Wales, and these raw, idiosyncratic, though highly accomplished, Plays in a Bag, wholly vindicate the decision by the Royal Court to spotlight the exciting possibilities that lie ahead for Welsh theatre.

The four plays are monologues of about fifteen to twenty minutes in length. The format is somewhat reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, in that what often begins as a cosily humorous dissection of the minutiae of an ordinary life, soon darkens into simmering guilt, pained regret and, on occasion, breakdown.

The Knowledge by Matthew Bulgo features a compulsively talkative Cardiff cabbie named Frank, whose initial claims to a happy and settled domestic life are slowly revealed to belie a fractious and ultimately destructive relationship with his estranged son. Bulgo and actor Christian Patterson deftly handle the character’s lurches from a rather studied and professional bonhomie into mordant philosophising. Contemplating the state of a world that is changing around him, and which he is failing to understand (the irony of the play’s title unfolds gradually throughout), Frank grimly observes, ‘We know we fucked it.’ Although aged in his early forties, Frank talks as though he is an older man, resorting to spouting platitudes about the comforting certainties of his past when the glare of introspection becomes too intense. He is trapped in a hyper-masculinised identity – victory over the English rugby team is viewed as crushing the ‘old enemy’ – and seems to respect rather than disapprove of violence. The grisly killing of his son’s dog, following its attack on a young girl, is recollected more with relish than distaste. This story is only a prelude to Frank’s big secret, his disgust at discovering that his son is homosexual, soon followed by failure to save him from a vicious homophobic assault by a mob of local youths. Although the subject is grim, The Knowledge successfully humanises this bigoted and rather limited man by revealing his need to unburden himself of his guilt, and to receive forgiveness.

Sandra Bendelow’s One Hour and Forty-five Minutes is a darkly comic character study of serial monogamist Rosie, who turns up in a small Welsh seaside town looking to attract men into apparently casual sex that she nonetheless hopes will drift into a relationship. Local cafes are her hunting grounds because, ‘lonely and desperate men like Wi-Fi.’ Her relationships provide her with somewhere to live and a means of support, until the boyfriend eventually tires of her – as they all do – and she is obliged to move on. Rosie travels light, with a simple canvas ‘bag for life’ on her shoulder. The bag contains the stolen artefacts she has appropriated in tiny acts of revenge against her ex-boyfriends, as she explains: ‘I fill my bag in my head, ready for the day they ask me to leave.’ She is no ordinary thief, taking only items of the greatest sentimental value to the ex. This is how she believes she will make her mark upon their lives.  One Hour and Forty-five Minutes is the slightest piece in the programme, but it is the funniest. Sara Harris Davies gets plenty of laughs by finding the truth of the character, playing Rosie as someone who is only semi-aware of the absurdities of her actions.

Kath Chandler is already one of Wales’ leading playwrights, so it was unsurprising that her play Leaves on the Line was the most challenging and complex of the evening. The piece is more of a duologue than a monologue, with Rebecca Harries playing both Stace and Ange, co-workers in a care home for senior citizens, with admirable skill and stage-craft. One of the most refreshing and satisfying aspects of Plays in a Bag, as a whole, is its interest in the lived experiences of so-called ordinary people, and in Chandler’s play we find two mature women struggling with the strains of their work, and musing on death, which is always in close proximity. The work lives of these women are cluttered with a multitude of petty frustrations, which include over-officious supervisors and absurd work-practice rules and regulations that serve only to prevent them from engaging on a human level with those under their care. The image of a potential suicide poised on a railway viaduct, which holds up their commuter train, frames the different responses of each woman to their reflections on life and death. Whereas one is cold, unsentimental and pragmatic, (‘It’s really sad but I’ve got things to do, haven’t I?’), the other views the attempts by others to avert the suicide as proof that, ‘Human beings are a good and kind species, in general.’ As with its companion pieces, Leaves on the Line avoids the fate of depressing its audience with its bleak subject matter due to the humanity and honesty of the writing, and bracing flashes of gallows humour.

6:37  by Alun Saunders benefits from a charismatic and intelligent performance from Lee Mengo, who has worked with Dirty Protest since its first production six years ago. He plays Neil, a popular inner-city priest who runs an after-school youth club called ‘Soul Time’. He is an attractive figure, self-aware and funny. He recounts his teenage crush on Ian, a new boy at his school, with an engaging warmth and tender contempt that makes him seem even more intensely likeable. But Neil’s story takes a tragic turn – he witnesses Ian being abused by a teacher, and his emotional and sexual development is warped as a result. Years later, he meets another young boy in his charge, with a passing resemblance to Ian. In a twisted attempt to reclaim his tortured past Neil becomes a paedophile, ‘He’s called James, but he’s Ian, my Ian.’ Saunders does not condemn outright, nor justify, Neil’s paedophilia, but simply allows his character to present his story. Any moral judgements are sensibly left to the audience, which shows a commendable trust by the author in its collective intelligence. Saunders is brave to allow himself a degree of empathy with Neil, and to challenge certain preconceptions that linger in the popular consciousness about paedophiles. The subject of 6:37 might have been sensationalised, but Saunders’ approach is mature and insightful. At twenty minutes, the play is arguably rather too short to provide a thorough examination of its themes, and it could benefit from an extra ten minutes of added material.

The chief surprises of Dirty Protest’s Plays in a Bag came not from the secrecy that surrounded its production, but rather from each play’s examination of the intimate secrets that lie beneath the personas we present every day to the world to mask our vulnerabilities.  The assured direction of Sara Lloyd, Mared Swain and Kate Wasserberg was suitably stripped down to ensure that each character’s story connected directly and urgently with its audience. While it has to be said that these four plays are not major dramatic works, which is perhaps inevitable given the limited scope of the project’s timeframe and remit, they do all bear the hallmarks of craft, intelligence and compassion – enough to indicate that a great deal more is yet to come from Welsh playwrights in the next decade. It is commendable that while the characters in these plays spoke in Welsh accents and made references to Welsh locales and institutions; the depth of characterisation in each case ensured that the plays did not seem parochial. They happen to be set in Wales, but are relevant to people beyond its borders.

Dirty Protest is staging two further Plays in a Bag nights, one at the Almeida in London and the other at Lattitude, which underlines the current strength of depth in Welsh play writing at the moment. The Royal Court has sat up and taken notice. When will Welsh theatres and funding bodies recognise the need for a new-writing house in Wales that is prepared to stage Welsh playwrights by the dozen?

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis