theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Iraq is fast becoming a tool of preference for writers who cannot resist joining the crowds to sound off their support or condemnation of the war. With the five-year anniversary of the invasion this week, now is a fitting time – if ever there is one – for another play with an Iraq resonance. Refreshingly, Roy Williams does not set out to soapbox on the rights and wrongs of the war, rather he uses Iraq to reflect on youth in crisis.
A carefree night carousing with friends, a fatal skirmish in Iraq, and a wedding are the three defining moments that shape the lives of the young men and women in Days of Significance, an RSC commissioned response to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, by Roy Williams.
This is not 16th century Messina, however, this is a 21st century English town centre at the weekend. Young men and women use the most degrading and explicit language to recreate the extremes of antisocial behaviour. The lads fight viciously but this is their way of bonding. They cuss obscenely but this is their way of showing affection. They hurl their testosterone and alcohol-fuelled abuse at the police. The girls are the same. They are slags and slappers to each other, on a crusade to get wasted and get sexed up. An incessant litany of abusive aggression is their only way of communicating. And this represents a great night out.
The shouting, the base and explicit abuse spills in relentless torrents from their mouths like their drink-induced vomit. And because it is relentless to watch and to listen to, and because the words are so debasing to both the speaker and the spoken to, they become monotonous and meaningless. This effect is carried over to the audience, and the point of the dialogue becomes obscured.
Behind the offensive and repetitive language, Williams raises some complex questions and makes interesting comparisons. The lads are out on one last bender before they go off to war in Iraq. These men are emotionally immature. If they are so ill-equipped to control themselves at home, how can they be expected to cope with the horrific reality of war? Ben is the only one to show any emotional self-awareness. He confesses to a sense of fear, and his friends barrack him for this weakness.
In the second scene, the men are in combat gear in Iraq but have not left behind their macho bragging. Their copycat machismo leads them to beat up an Iraqi prisoner. It is Ben alone who stands trial for this back in England. Ben is not the main thug but it is his flying boot caught on camera. When does individual responsibility become society’s responsibility? Should Ben as the individual take the blame for the group’s actions? Is it morally acceptable for the army to put young soldiers in a situation they are psychologically unprepared to handle? More interesting questions but again obscured by the relentless invective.
From the debris of the wedding comes the play’s moment of redemption where Lenny, the stepfather of one of the girls, Hannah, states his belief that hers is the voice of the future to speak up, speak out. This is too little too late in the production to redress the balance of hope against despair. And it is pushing realistic optimism much too far.
The incessantly foul street talk negates the interesting and subtle dilemmas in Days of Significance. Far from being a piece of theatre to speak up for today’s youth, this is a dire indictment of a young generation out of control of itself. Thankfully, the play does not attempt to suggest that ‘we’ – the big, anonymous, omnipotent ‘we’ – have failed our youth. The youth in Days of Significance fails itself.
Evie Rackham © 2008
Produced by RSC, Days of Significance opened at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, London on 18-03-08 and continued until 29–06-08.
Originally published 21-03-08
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